Strengthen Affinities with Spiral Branding

Branding is finding its way back into the good graces of large enterprises and startups. With barriers crumbling, geography shrinking, time vanishing and information overloading, brand switching is rampant. Every buyer is smart and empowered.

Throughout my career — first at Gillette as assistant brand and sales promotion manager, then at Schick Electric and Bushnell Optical, where I was in charge of advertising and marketing, branding has been part of my life for 30 years. I have watched it evolve from “one size fits all” to individually tailored messages for an audience of one.

In today’s marketing, it’s not enough just to get something out there. Messaging must have relevance and timeliness to separate your products/services from those of your competitors.

The distinction between products and pricing is blurring. For example, most of the time it’s not possible to understand the distinctions between one computer and another or even one national airline from another. They all basically work the same. The computer screen and keyboard are basically alike, and once inside an aircraft, they all more or less look and feel the same.

Because of this sameness and that we’re time-impoverished and overcommunicated as well, consumers are relying more on “trusted brands.” Brands have not lost their importance during the past 30 years; they have just taken on a new dimension. Is it wise for companies to continue to rely on mass media as their most trusted way of communicating brand identity? Or is it better to follow the Internet path of and embrace the new way?

I recently came across a concept that uses the old and new communications with excellent results. To me, this is the communications paradigm for the future.

The new idea is not too different from consultant Don Schultz’s concept of integrated marketing. It’s called spiral branding by Jesse Berst, publisher of an online newsletter called Jesse Berst’s Anchor Desk.

The theory behind spiral branding is that a company’s future and lifeblood come from the confidence and relevance that a customer perceives. Spiral branding integrates the new technologies into a full-circle communications process that delivers relevant and timely information to a customer.

Over time, the natural dialogue between companies and customers has faded into background noise as businesses have turned inward and used new technologies to “push” products and services to market. This has segmented the process from mass marketing to category marketing to niche marketing and, finally, to group marketing. Now, with the integration of technology and databases, we’re ready to deliver one-to-one marketing.

Thanks to the phenomenon of e-business, customers can again choose when, where and how they want to interact with an organization. Stores are built on Web sites, and the doors have been widened by URLs. Customers can click to, through and out of your company in seconds — stopping to call your contact center, visit your branch office, view your showroom and browse your shelves — any day, at any hour. Life is good. Or is it?

The concept behind spiral branding begins with the strength and consistency of the brand. It uses the brand image as the springboard to launch a trusting relationship, or affinity, with customers and prospects to aid them in selection, become their trusted adviser and reduce the time required for personal research.

Since technology can deliver one-to-one personalized messaging, spiral branding says it is time to take advantage of all media, using a combination of the most powerful media available to marketers today: mass advertising and e-mail.

The two most powerful media are television, which is a broad-reach medium, and e-mail. The U.S. Postal Service is expected to deliver 107 billion pieces of mail this year. However, this is dwarfed by the estimated 3.4 trillion e-mail messages that will be delivered during the same time. E-mail reaches us at work, at home and on the road. With more than 50 percent of all households wired and 104 million U.S. residents' using e-mail at home or work, e-mail is a gigantic medium.

When combined with traditional advertising, e-mail marketing campaigns get a 15 percent click-through rate, compared with the once powerful 1 percent to 2 percent traditional direct mail rate. Yet, e-mail does not have the ability to create brand. And mass advertising does not have the ability to create affinity or personalization.

Spiral branding brings the two together. It makes the Web and e-mail — the point of contact — act in unison with the mass media to produce the interactivity or transactional state that delivers on the promise of relevancy, timeliness and affinity.

Spiral branding does not attempt to create brand. However, it takes full advantage of the image and concept that the brand represents. It delivers continual dialogue to prospects and customers and lets them have control over the relationship.

Traditional brand advertising establishes the brand concept and encourages customers and prospects to go to the Web site where they will find affinity with their lifestyles or interests. Once they are at the Web site, spiral branding drives them to provide information on personal preferences, including their preferred timing and type of communication. With permission granted, the database engine now knows when and where to deliver dynamic content and e-mail that will show appreciation, follow up at the appropriate time or schedule a telemarketing call to deliver new and timely information.

As with any marketing strategy, spiral branding will be successful only if the proper infrastructure and database are in place. If a company is to succeed in e-business, it must be adept at identifying, selecting, acquiring and retaining its most valuable customers. The recipe for success is this: First, identify; next differentiate; then interact; and finally customize. The interaction must be active as differentiated from passive. The old passive method, in which a Web visitor can communicate with only static information, is no longer acceptable.

The customization of communication has its challenges in achievement. Customized communication requires a database and top-down commitment. The function of the database must be to remember what the customer or prospect has told the company in the past, then deliver the appropriate new information or find the customer-directed information.

The old rule of being able to deliver what you promise is just as necessary for the new communications as the old. No matter what media channels customers or prospects choose, they expect a business to respond as a single, well-organized entity. Every performance is a command performance. Your company must have detailed, customer-specific information immediately available — on the screen of everyone who needs it — supported by products and services geared to customers’ and prospects’ individual needs and preferences.

Freshly empowered customers are creating a new business paradigm, one defined by instant access to a myriad of communication channels. E-business is the new calling card in an environment where success is synonymous with loyal, long-term customer relationships.

A successful e-business depends on two things: a top-down commitment to retain good customers and the use of those relationships to build profitability over the long term. To make this happen, companies need to take a spiral branding approach to capitalize on every aspect of the communications relationship in a continuing interactive circle.

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