I was interviewed by Authority Magazine and asked about the Five things you need to build a trusted and beloved brand. Below are my answers.
As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview Ulli Appelbaum.
Ulli Appelbaum is the founder of brand research and strategy firm First The Trousers Then The Shoes Inc. (www.First-the-trousers.com) and the author of the award winning “The Brand Positioning Workbook: A simple how-to guide to more compelling brand positionings, faster”. He lives in the US but works globally.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When in business school, I initially wanted to do my Master thesis about supply chain management and
“just-in-time” manufacturing, a concept developed in Japan by Toyota, if I remember well. But as I learned more about the subject and talked to more people, I realized that I was more interested in the cultural aspect and the people side than the logistics and manufacturing side. At the same time, I came across Trout & Ries’ book on Positioning and was hooked right away. A few internships confirmed my interest in the subject and led to a career as account planner and brand strategist in various agencies in Europe and for the last 20 years in the US.
Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was in the process of moving to the US to work for one of the most creative agencies in the world at the time. We were pitching a very important and significant piece of business. I had been hired because of my experience with this type of business and client.
The final and all decisive presentation took place in a conference room in the Waldorf Astoria in NYC. There were around 20 senior international executives on the client side, all the senior executives of the agency that had just hired me as well as the CEO of the holding company to which this agency belonged. I was probably the most junior person in this room.
Everything was timed to the second and I remember I had 7 minutes for my part. We rehearsed and rehearsed. At the end of my part, I was supposed to play one of the client’s commercials and show them a tag we had added to the commercial. We wanted to add this tag to all their ads around the world, so it was a big deal and an important part of the recommendation.
My part went great and was coming to an end, and 6 minutes and 10 seconds into my presentation I pressed “play” on the AV system. But I was so tense and nervous that I pressed “stop” at the end of the commercial and before the tag. The second I pressed “stop”, my world switched to slow motion. I realized my mistake and saw the global chief creative officer raise in slow motion screaming “nooooooo……” leaping across the room and taking over the control of the AV system. I remember thinking, “well I might as well not unpack my suitcases and just fly back to Germany. Goodbye dreams to live and work in the USA for one of the best advertising agencies in the world.” Luckily my immediate reaction was to say “and THIS ladies and gentlemen is how we do NOT recommend building your brand around the world. Our global chief creative director will now show you what we ACTUALLY recommend doing”. The one advantage of my mistake and the commotion it created was that it woke up half the client executives who were slowly dozing off allowing us to get their full attention for the closing section of the presentation.
At the end of the meeting and once the client had left, the CEO of my new agency came over to me and gave me hug (he must have known how devastated I felt even though I maintained my professional composure), the chief creative director decided to affectionately call me “button” for a month following the presentation and the CEO of the holding company promised to send me to AV training to learn the difference between “play” and “stop” while shaking my hand with a smirk.
A week later we had won that global business.
I learned a few lessons that day:
- Mistakes are human. They make us likable and are not the end of the world. Since then, I’ve significantly improved my presentations not by being perfect but simply by embracing my own style and having fun with the mistakes I still make.
- The unconditional and non-judgmental support of your executive leadership team is priceless in making you feel valued and an important member of the organization.
- The difference between “play” and “stop.”
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The name of my company, First The Trousers Then The Shoes Inc. says it all. We are a brand research and strategy firm that believes in strategy first but also that the strategy development process is first and foremost a creative problem-solving process. As such we combine analytical rigor with tools and techniques that promote divergent thinking, the key to coming up with truly novel ideas. For our positioning development methodology, for example we leverage the insights of 1,200 case studies of effective brand building to stimulate and inspire our thought process when working with a client on a project.
The outcome is that we often help our clients reframe the way they look at their business and uncover a world of new opportunities. After a large segmentation and positioning project leading to over 60 new product ideas, a senior client walked up to me and said “I’ve worked in this category for over 20 years but have never thought about our business in this way. And yet the way you helped us reframe it makes so much sense.” These are the moments I live for as a consultant.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I recently helped an online fundraising platform understand its market and define its positioning. During the pandemic the online fundraising market had exploded, and while the company saw tremendous growth it wasn’t in control of its growth. In addition to that, their customer base was extremely diverse. By helping them frame the very chaotic and complex market of donations, quantify their business opportunity, and help them understand their core consumer segments, we were able to help them focus on their core strengths and provide the clarity they needed to better allocate their limited resources. I had also added to my team a DE&I expert allowing us to really understand the needs and perspectives of their diverse customer base. As a result, not only did the strategy and positioning coming out of this project crystallize the brands core values and strengths, carve out a unique and appealing positioning in this very cluttered market, it also allowed us to extend the access to this platform to under-privileged communities that otherwise would not have had access.
Ok let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?
Let’s start by defining what a brand is. In my perspective a brand is the sum of all the associations a specific offering has in the mind of its core target audience. The associations are the sum of what the consumers experience themselves, what their friends and family say about the offering, what media and culture in general say about the offering and what the company itself claims about its offering through new product development, marketing and advertising and so forth. These brand associations also need to be rooted in the product or service (or idea), else the company will not be perceived as genuine and risk a consumer backslash. A typical example would be for a brand to claim to be sustainable even though it is not (using advertising to try to create a sustainability brand association).
As such a strong brand should always start with a great and unique product or service or idea and bring it to life in a compelling and differentiating marketing program (the 4 Ps of marketing) including advertising. A great example of that is Chobani which started with an amazing product (Greek yogurt) and a purposeful approach to business and marketing.
The role of marketing and advertising should then be to 1. Reinforce the desired brand associations (brand positioning) and 2. To keep those desired brand associations relevant and contemporary over time.
Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?
Investing in a brand, or more specifically investing in clear and differentiating brand associations, is comparable to compound interest. Over time and if invested in regularly, these associations will grow stronger and more distinctive making the brand less vulnerable to competition and less sensitive to price variations.
There is a whole body of research that shows that strong and distinctive brand associations lead to better brand salience (the likelihood that a brand will be thought of at the moment of purchase), that brands with strong and differentiating brand associations are less price sensitive and more profitable and that companies that continue to invest in their brands during recessions will grow faster than brands that do not invest during those times. Investing in your brand means creating an intangible value to your consumers that competition cannot replicate.
Can you share 5 strategies that a company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.
Understand the people buying your brand. I am purposefully not saying the “consumers” as most consumers do not think about your brand as much as you do. Yes, it is important to understand the category dynamics and purchase drivers in your specific market, but it is equally If not more important to understand people’s broader values and perspectives, their rituals, and the role your brand plays in their lives. One brand that understood the people buying its brand is the candy bar Kit Kat in Japan. In fact, Kit Kat is Kitto Katto in Japanese, which roughly translates into “You’re bound to win” or even, “Never fail.” As a result, one in three Japanese students are said to purchase Kit Kats before an entrance examination and one in five reportedly bring Kit Kats to where they take the test! Nestle, the company owning Kit Kat has even developed special packaging for this occasion. Thanks to its name and the brand team’s savviness, Kit Kat has become an essential part of the Japanese preparation rituals for taking entry exams, a unique position no competitor can aspire to claim.
Understand that brands are networks of associations in the mind of the people buying your brands and that your job as a marketer is to create and reinforce those associations. You would run away if your doctor told you, “oh I am not sure how your body works, but please entrust me with your health, I ‘ll take good care of you and make sure you live a long and healthy life”. As such, you should either create your own brand associations or borrow associations from something else. The National Pork Board for example closely associated itself with chicken by claiming that pork is “The other white meat”, clearly positioning itself as an alternative to what is perceived as a healthier alternative to red meat, while taking full advantage of all the positive associations created by the idea of “white meat”. This “reframing” led to an increase in pork sales of 20%.
Define the 3 or 4 associations you want your brand to stand for (positioning) and focus all your resources on building these associations without distractions. Geiko has spent the last twenty years single-mindedly telling us what it stands for so that when we hear “15 minutes could save you..” we all say “15%” in unison.
Give meaning to your brand beyond product features and specs. Unless you are an innovation leader and are able to maintain a competitive advantage via product features you should try to create brand associations that transcend features. But even if you can do so (focus on features) it is hard to maintain this approach in the long run. Think about Gillette. First, they offered one blade for a cleaner shave, then 2, then 3, then 4. How many blades does one need for a clean shave? Same with the iPhone. Is there really a significant difference between the iPhone 12 and the iPhone 13? One example of a brand that did it well is Beats by Dre, which became the leading brand of headphones with a claimed 70% market share. It was intentionally associated with the pre-game moments where athletes try to focus on the game by blocking out all the noise, criticism, and self-doubts, and basically get mentally ready for the game. By doing so, it took the category generic functional benefit of “noise cancellation”, created an association with this very specific and relevant listening occasion, and turned it into a relevant consumer benefit of “achieving focus”. All without claiming any superior functional benefit.
Create distinctive brand assets and continuously communicate them across touchpoints: some of these brand associations are brand assets, the logo or brand mark, the primary colors, the shape, a character or spokesperson, a jingle, everything that makes your brand distinctive. Brand assets are often underrated and typically ignored by advertising agencies. And yet research firm Quantar has shown that strong and distinctive brand assets lead to a 57% increase in brand salience, i.e. your brand is 57% more likely to be thought of when the consumer is making a purchase decision when you have strong and distinctive brand assets. That doesn’t mean that your communication needs to be boring. Brands that excel at this include McDonald, Heinz Ketchup, Veuve Clicquot, Apple and basically every brand you immediately recognize even without seeing the logo.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
One brand that has done a fantastic job is Heinz Ketchup. Over the decades it has stood by its positioning and core product values. For example- one of the negatives associated with Heinz’s Ketchup has always been its slow pour (before the introduction of the plastic squeeze bottle). But instead of ignoring the issue Heinz has regularly embraced it to justify the richness and quality of its product, an unwavering commitment to its positioning and the brand associations it had created. It even went as far as to tilt the labels on its bottles so that the label would be perfectly horizontal when held in the position that ensured the best pour angle. Heinz turned a perceived negative into a positive by justifying it with the product’s richness and quality.
In addition to that, Heinz Ketchup has built iconic brand assets (the shape of the bottle and the color red) which are immediately recognizable around the world. As a result, any other ketchup brand around the world -and there are a lot- is only seen as a “second best”.
In advertising, one generally measures success by the number of sales. How does one measure the success of a brand building campaign? Is it similar, is it different?
Sales is ultimately the only success metric. However, from a branding perspective brand equity is the second. What is brand equity? Simply the combination of two elements: brand awareness (how many people know of you) or to be more specific brand salience (how many people think of your brand at the moment of purchase) and strength and differentiation of your brand associations (sometimes also called brand image). As such, the metrics you want to track include brand salience as well as the strength and distinctiveness of the brand associations you want to create.
What role does social media play in your branding efforts?
Social media is typically an amplifier of an existing communication plan. Again, research shows that a campaign will be more effective when spread across a variety of communication channels, including social media. I do not believe in this popular saying that the consumer owns your brand and that social media is a great channel to have “conversations” with consumers. When was the last time you actually had a conversation on Facebook or Instagram with your preferred brand of mayonnaise? My point exactly.
Social media can also be a great source of learning for a brand and a great way to be in touch with culture by observing and monitoring what resonates with consumers. The trick is to listen to a brands’ real consumers and not to the armchair activists that have a loud voice but don’t buy the product. Research showed for example that in the case of a social media backslash (for example Peloton a year or so ago or Chick-fil-A a few years back) the loudest complaints came from people who have never or will never buy the brand. Those are obviously not the people you want to listen to.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I live in a bicultural, biracial household. I’ve lived in nine countries and cultures across three continents. I really consider myself as a citizen of the world even though I really enjoy my suburban lifestyle in Minnesota. If I could inspire a movement, it would be a movement about promoting global understanding and tolerance and about valuing and celebrating our cultural differences. And while this may sound ambitious, I started small by creating a set of game cards called “The 26 Most Popular Children Games From Around The World” which teaches children in a playful way about other cultures. I only sell the cards over the holidays on Amazon and donate the proceeds to charity. It is not much, but a little contribution and a first step.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
As I mentioned, I grew up in different cultures and was strongly influenced by this variety and diversity. The quote I always come back to thanks to this experience is Marcel Proust’s “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” You could say that this “life lesson” has guided me in everything I do, in my consulting practice, when writing my Brand Positioning Workbook and in the way I approach life and every day.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to have breakfast with Ryan Reynolds to understand how he found his voice and lunch with Kim Jong-un, yes, the leader of North Korea, not because I admire him but to get a glimpse into his world views (beyond politics and geo-politics).
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