A Lesson in Marketing: On green beans and branding irons

“What we need to do,” declared one executive of a large organization, “is brand ourselves!”  An image of corporate CEOs lining up for the cattle ranch branding iron comes to mind. That executive, however, and many others are recognizing that it’s important to define as clearly as possible what their organizations stand for and what they offer to clients, customers and other stakeholders. Successful branding for organizations takes more than a corporate identity campaign in which logos, taglines, slogans, mission statements and other forms of organizational definition are developed. Branding must first be an internal process that reaches deep into the roots of an organization.

I first learned the concept of “brand” behind the shopping cart, alongside my mother who let me help select grocery purchases from the store shelves.

“Let’s get some green beans,” she instructed. “No, not that one. Get the ‘name brand.’”

“Why are those better?” I wondered. She explained that it’s safer to buy from the companies whose names you knew.The product is more likely to taste good because the name brand companies are more careful when they produce the product. Huh? How do you figure out which ones are the “name brands?”

As I evolved into an independent purchaser with disposable income for bikes, clothes and record albums, I applied the name brand concept—paying attention to promotional claims, comparing those to the actual quality and trying to get the most value for my limited budget. (Admittedly, when it came to record albums, it was more about bands than brands.)

Some companies understand branding so well they are able to successfully market sub-quality products to certain audiences who value brand more than quality and are willing to pay more than the product is worth to get it. Teenagers are a prime target and repeatedly demonstrate that the name on the shirt means more than the fabric quality, which often disintegrates after the second washing. Many teenagers purchase in herd mentality, buying what has been deemed acceptable by their particular subculture. What they’re paying for is image. They’re investing in a cultural identity that makes them feel they belong.

Today, the concept of branding has reached far beyond product advertising and marketing and into organizations that sell services. From law firms to construction companies, medical providers to local governments, leaders are seeing it as a way to differentiate their service from competitors, improve their market share, even justify tax increases. Some such efforts fall flat, however, because they are nothing more than promotion and hype. Savvy purchasers, clients, patrons and even taxpayers expect a brand to be based not on advertising, but on reputation—in other words, the actual outcomes they personally experience. They don’t want to hear promises; they want evidence and results. Emotion-based marketing for organizations that need to recruit members, attract clients or expand market base can only take the organization so far.

An educational institution or school district that tries to brand itself as providing world-class programs must deliver. If the experience of those closest to the “product”—the teachers, parents and students themselves—doesn’t agree with the promotional claims, word of mouth will soon override the branding efforts. If a medical provider makes its patients wait, subjects them to frustrating billing problems and generally mistreats them, its patients’ experience will nullify its carefully crafted but empty slogans of caring for patients.  If an association purports to make its members more knowledgeable about their particular industry and thus make their jobs easier, they must know the challenges those members face and provide cost-effective strategies to overcome them. As soon as any crack is visible between the purchasers’ experience and the organization’s “brand,” all marketing and advertising claims become moot.

Although branding is a worthwhile endeavor for many organizations, it needs to evolve from research – knowledge of the particular market, the needs of purchasers, the beliefs held by clients, the challenges of members or other key stakeholders. Do their perceptions of the organization match what the organization actually offers? If not, why not? Is there a disconnect between the clientele’s expectations and what the organization can deliver? Before branding can take place, leaders must understand their organizations fully and reach beyond their own assumptions into those of the people they serve.

Thinking back, I paid special attention to the taste of those green beans. I’m glad my mother took such care to select what she considered was the best possible choice, paying attention to the company’s reputation, its advertising, its packaging; but that didn’t stop me from trying to pass those green beans under the table to one of my brothers, if I could get away with it.

Barbara Lezotte, APR is the president and founder of Lezotte Miller Public Relations Inc. in Okemos, providing counsel and strategic communication services to associations, corporations, nonprofits and government agencies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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