Creating a ‘Breakout Brand’ Through PR Outreach

A recent survey commissioned by rbb Public Relations and performed by IBOPE/Zogby International received a bit of media attention over the past few weeks, and with good reason: its most significant revelation was the fact that “83% of consumers would pay more for a product/service from a company they feel puts them first.”

The survey concerned the phenomenon of “breakout brands” that achieve the enviable goal of customer loyalty and steady market share by dealing directly with their customers rather than playing a never-ending game of Battleship with their competitors. And its list of 2012’s “Top 10 Breakout Brands” ran the gamut from universally-beloved names like Apple and customer service leaders like Zappos to controversial brands like Chick-Fil-A.

What led rbb to commission this survey? While researching older marketing strategies, founder Christine Barney noticed that brands no longer followed the classic “challenger” approach typified by the Avis tagline “We’re only No. 2 in rent a cars. So why go with us? We try harder”. This Don Draper-style message may have worked in the 60’s, but it’s no longer relevant. So how have branding strategies evolved?

Barney lists three primary traits of the “breakout brand”:

  1. They lead by putting the customer first, not distinguishing themselves from rivals. Customers don’t care about brand fights.
  2. They use market research and knowledge of their customer base to anticipate their customers’ desire. Did the public realize they wanted tablets before the iPad arrived?
  3. They communicate in ways that go well beyond traditional customer service, developing “rich feedback loops” with their customers.

Can any brand break out? Theoretically, yes—“breakout” does not necessarily mean new. Barney also lists three distinct types of breakout brands:

  1. Household or “established” brands—the public already knows and generally likes these brands. Their primary goal is to reinvent themselves or remind the public why they’re great. Examples include Bacardi, which underwent a significant re-branding to appeal to younger demographics.
  2. “Engaged” brands—brands that are known but struggling. They break out by tailoring their products and messages to unique segments of their audience. An example is Duncan Hines, which reached out to “passionate bakers” by developing a new line called Frosting Creations and encouraging customers to share their work online.
  3. “Emerging” brands—smaller organizations whose primary challenges concern resources rather than bureaucracy. They break out by using the tools at their disposal—communications. Zappos is a perfect example of a brand that grew via the power of reputation and interaction.

Brand connection isn’t always an emotional issue. The fans who camp out in front of Apple stores do so because they love the products, not because they love the Genius Bar employees.

Sometimes brands bank on an emotional connection that can’t quite be described as “love”: American Express, for example, always highlighted exclusivity as a prime selling point. Dunkin’ Donuts is America’s #1 coffeeshop brand, but Starbucks’ customer loyalty ratings and individual sales total are far higher. Why? Because Dunkin’ is a mass marketer while Starbucks caters to its audience’s specific tastes.

Another great example is Cirque du Soleil. Before the brand exploded in the 2000’s, the American public didn’t even realize it was interested in high-art gymnastics circus shows—but the company’s directors knew from experience, and they established a remarkably successful brand on that certainty.

Bottom line: mass marketing just doesn’t deliver big numbers any more. It’s not enough to make generic feel-good statements about how much you love your customers; a brand must follow through by knowing and communicating with each unique “splinter” group within its larger audience. That’s what being a breakout brand is all about.