Recently, I was invited to join a speaking panel at a marketing summit in Singapore to deliver on the theme: “Branding: How to make your brand ‘a verb’”. As an avid student of brand building, I leapt at the opportunity to take a stab at what seemed to be the Holy Grail of what all brands should aspire to.
In the early days of my career, I was fortunate enough to land work as a brand analyst, whose job was to do research around brand valuations and uncover gaps and opportunities for clients. Using my brand audits as a starting point, our team of consultants would guide these clients in developing their brand and arriving at a roadmap of activities to either reverse declining perception levels or raise the value of their brand.
It was in that era when the gold standard in brand building was to turn brands into verbs or short-hand references of their respective category. I still remember the times when we would take new clients through ‘best practice’ slides, which evoked brand like Coke for colas, Brand’s for essence of chicken, Maggi for instant noodles among other localised examples of how great brands were able to turn themselves into dominant category leaders.
Having personally led several brand transformation engagements, region-wide campaigns and launches for both the private and public sectors for well over a decade now, I’ve learned that for brands to be truly meaningful to the advocates and businesses they serve, they must go beyond becoming verbs and push beyond their USPs to create brand universes.
From USPs to brand universe
BrandZ, a survey by research firm Kantar Millward Brown, shows that strong brands deliver superior returns over time, and regardless of market disruptions. This year’s analysis of the BrandZ portfolio saw these brands increase in valuation by 124.9 per cent between April 2006 and April 2017, outperforming both the S&P 500, which grew 82.1 per cent, and the MSCI World Index, which grew 34.9 percent.
A key driver of brand value was how these brands were able to meet the consumer’s functional and emotional needs in relevant ways that create affinity: “Consumers are unlikely to consider a brand unless it is perceived as Meaningful” – and there it would be hardly meaningful if a brand’s promise was estranged from how the promise was delivered through the universe of its product or organization.
Coca Cola’s brand universe, which evoked “Open Happiness”, was a meaningful narrative for the times. The brand conveys that more than any time, we need to come together as one world community instead of erecting barriers between each other as disparate societies do. Building on its particular resonance with women, beauty brand Dove has reframed the elementary idea of “the rite of passage from childhood, into adult initiation” into a compelling movement for the modern age. By making beauty a source of confidence, not anxiety, Dove has reframed this elementary idea into a global movement that co-opts partners, organizations, parents and institutions into its brand universe, beyond having a USP of “the soap with one-quarter moisturising cream”.
In closing, just as many mythologies of the past fail to hold sway in many modern societies today because they do not reflect the science of the day, brands today need to also evolve in step with the business models of their organizations. Today’s strongest enterprises have evolved from makers of product to become designers of platforms and creators of ecosystems. The business models of Google, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook – the world’s most valuable brands in 2017 – reflect this new reality.
Unfortunately, proponents of brands as verbs have not kept up. Brands today that still perpetuate ideas such as the “unique selling proposition (USP)” as the be-all of brand building – another Mad Men rubric from the 1960s – are akin to embracing the cosmography of a “flat-earth”.
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.
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Marcus Loh is Vice President for Marketing and Corporate Communication at PSB Academy, Singapore’s leading private education institution. This year, he was named a Linkedin Power Profile and was listed in Singapore Business Review’s top 10 “Notable Chief Marketing Officers under 40”.