How can Philip Morris, the Big Tobacco company that's profited from carcinogenic products for over a century, claim to be a "socially and environmentally responsible company"? It sounds like quite a stretch and seems to defy reality, but not according to its CEO's plan to transform the maker of Marlboros into an ESG stock. In fact, CEO Jacek Olczak is quite confident that a series of rebranding efforts can resuscitate the company and regain the favor of investors and consumers. Part of that agenda was the acquisition of a medical inhaler company to signal Philip Morris's commitment to move "beyond nicotine."
At the end of the day, it all comes down to the company's Brand Strategy. You can look at branding as business story-telling. But remember, all stories are biased because narratives are always artificially constructed. How a company spins its story to tap into human emotions can either fast-track its success or incite public outrage.
What are the invisible forces that guide our purchase decisions? Why do we, as consumers, go against economic rationality sometimes and opt for the more expensive products instead of the cheaper ones? In a Black Mirror sort of way, sometimes brands actually know you better than you know yourself.
So let's take a deep dive into what strategies businesses like to use to make you willingly hand over your money. We will cover branding tactics that infiltrate both the conscious and subconscious realms, tactics that exploit popular ideologies, that promise to patch up your deep insecurities, or that use visuals to sell you a dream. We will also demonstrate the effects of branding successes and, more excitingly, failures with real-life case studies and business anecdotes.
Know thyself and know thy customers
The first step to an effective brand strategy involves an in-depth understanding of your brand. This might sound like a given, but it's always worth digging under the surface level to deconstruct every part of the brand identity that you might've taken for granted. This includes defining the brand's purpose and personality.
Case study: Patagonia
Brand purpose speaks on the deeper reason a brand exists beyond generating profit, even if in reality the only reason is to generate profit. While Philip Morris's newfound interest in ESG-friendly initiatives is visibly farfetched and ungenuine, a brand that's had a consistently positive purpose is Patagonia. Since its inception, the brand purpose is explicitly stated in its mission statement: "We're in business to save our home planet." Beyond just a tagline, the message is a call to arms that influences every aspect of the business, from product design to supply chain management.
For example, to promote responsible consumption, the brand encourages customers to buy less but buy better, repair their gear, and recycle it through their Worn Wear program. In 2022, founder Yvon Chouinard even transferred his ownership of the company to a trust and a nonprofit organization to ensure that all of its profits – about $100 million a year – are used to combat climate change and protect undeveloped land.
Whether you find it performative or not, the fact is Patagonia has built a loyal following. This brand reputation survey in 2021 shows Patagonia taking the crown, going up 31 ranks at a time when social responsibility practices are becoming more scrutinized by average consumers.
Your brand personality represents the human-like characteristics, such as being fun, professional, or innovative. This aspect of your brand influences how people perceive and connect with your brand. A tool that branding professionals like to use to define this personality is the Tone of Voice chart, which visually breaks down each personality trait from one extreme to the other, for example, "casual" versus "formal".
Case study: Rosetta Stone vs. Duolingo
Let's take that idea and apply it to two language-learning products: Rosetta Stone and Duolingo. Although Rosetta Stone had a two-decade head start in the game and was, for a while, the go-to software people used to welcome the challenge of a foreign language, Duolingo has taken over as the most installed language-learning app in recent years: an impressive 64% compared to Rosetta Stone's meager 2%.
Let's take that idea and apply it to two language-learning products: Rosetta Stone and Duolingo. Although Rosetta Stone had a two-decade headstart in the game and was, for a while, the go-to software people used to welcome the challenge of a foreign language, Duolingo has taken over as the most installed language-learning app in recent years: an impressive 64% compared to Rosetta Stone's meager 2%.
In contrast to Rosetta Stone's relatively tamed and formal branding, Duolingo's mascot, the green owl appropriately named Duo, has won over the hearts of Gen Z and millennial learners with his silly antics and irreverence, while thriving on a market cap of over $6 billion.
It's important to note that what boosted Duo's popularity isn't just some watered-down slapstick humor, but the fact Duo has developed a personality and even a life story (he is currently pursuing the pop music sensation Dua Lipa). He's been built to be the mischievous imaginary friend that users can share a laugh with.
Study your competitors
Now, moving beyond just the confines of your own brand, a good understanding of the overall market context of your business sector can provide a more well-rounded assessment of what you lack or excel at. Even just a simple competitive analysis can help identify your competitors' strengths and weaknesses, so that you can gain critical insights to position your brand effectively and differentiate it from others.
A more visual way to go about it would be a brand perceptual map, which evaluates your position against competitors according to the brand characteristics that are the most applicable to your business.
Now, just a quick note about the "know thy customers" part. A robust brand strategy also requires a deep understanding of your target audience. This involves pinpointing your ideal customers, including their demographics, psychographics, and buying behaviors. By now, this is a familiar and tried-and-true practice that's used in other areas such as sales, marketing, and even product development.
Brand strategy execution
Messaging and delivery
When it comes to the actual execution of a brand strategy, the bulk of the work comes down to how everything we just mentioned gets packaged and communicated to the ideal customer. A good starting point to craft a compelling positioning statement is by filling in the essential blanks, such as your company name, what kind of business it is, what it does, what role it plays, its expertise, and why people love it. From there, play around with it to tailor it to the brand personality that we talked about earlier.
For example, Slack's positioning statement leans more on the traditional side as it services users in a professional setting: "Slack is where work happens. It's a new layer of the business technology stack where people can work together more effectively, connect all their other software tools and services, and find the information they need to do their best work — all within a secure, enterprise-grade environment".
Another commonly used communication tool, Zoom, has a simpler yet still effective positioning statement: "Flawless video, clear audio, instant sharing. Bring your team together to get things done."
A lot of times, however, consumers have already made up their opinions about a brand even before any word is uttered. This is when we return to the old adage of "a picture is worth a thousand words."
Case in point, almost all rebranding efforts entail some kind of changes to the brand's visual identity, whether it's the general aesthetic or something as specific as its logo. You can tell the importance of brand visuals by the sheer amount of money companies throw at these visual rebranding efforts: British Petroleum's new green sunflower logo – ironic, we know – $200 million. Pepsi's three-year brand redesign efforts: $1.2 billion. And here's a fun fact, the iconic Citibank logo as we know it today was designed on a napkin in five minutes. The cost? $1.5 million in 1998, which is about $3 million today.
Case study: Tropicana
Good visual branding costs money as an upfront investment, but bad visual branding can cost even more in the long run. Tropicana's rebranding effort is a prime example of a redesign gone awry.
Before the rebrand, Tropicana's packaging featured a distinctive straw sticking into an orange, evoking the freshness of its product. The branding was instantly recognizable and helped Tropicana differentiate itself from other juice brands. However, in an attempt to modernize and refresh its image, Tropicana unveiled a new packaging in which the iconic orange and straw imagery was replaced with a glass of orange juice set against a minimalist background. The new packaging aimed to evoke a more natural, wholesome image.
However, the response from consumers was overwhelmingly negative. The new design was criticized for looking too generic, with some customers even confusing Tropicana with store brands. The branding, which consumers had associated with freshness and quality, was no longer visible, disrupting the connection they had with the product.
As a direct result, sales reportedly dropped 20% in the weeks following the rebrand. In response, Tropicana reverted to its original packaging just two months after the new design was introduced. The failed rebrand was estimated to have cost the company millions in lost sales and redesign costs.
The final theme of a successful brand strategy is evaluation. It's vital to review and evolve your strategy continuously. This includes assessing customer experience at all touch points and measuring brand equity, or the perceived value of your brand based on customer experiences and perceptions.
Case study: HBO Max
While PR incidents can greatly impact a brand's reputation and see its effects immediately, the effects of other brand strategies can take longer to become apparent. Recently, the streaming service HBO Max rebranded to become just Max. The move was met with both criticism and intrigue. Some claim that the rebranding renounced HBO's legacy of quality programming, while others are excited to experience more diverse and non-traditional programming implied by the new brand.
Despite strong public opinions coming from both sides, it's still too early to say if HBO's new brand strategy is a success or failure. That's why even after branding efforts have been fully launched and rolled out, it's crucial to monitor changes in public sentiments over time. Unless, of course, if the backlash is so instantly strong – like in Tropicana's case – that an immediate pivot is necessary.
For consumers, understanding a business's brand strategies helps you make more informed purchasing decisions. It allows you to decode marketing messages and identify the real value of a product beyond its price and promotional claims.
For businesses, it's important to experiment and look beyond the surface-level branding rhetoric that's becoming less and less effective, as consumers become savvier and flock to brands that actually live up to their words.