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Marketing for Generation X

Hamilton Spears

It has been said that if you systematically dismantled the entire operation of Coca-Cola Co. and left them with only their brand name, management could rebuild the company within five years. Remove the brand name, and the enterprise would likewise die within five years.

That's the mark of a brand-first enterprise. More than a framework for marketing and communications efforts, the brand is the emotional source of the organization itself. People are guided and inspired by the company's purpose, expressed in the brand, which generates energy, personality, and order. All of the company's actions -- from advertising and collateral to customer service calls to operations practices to employees' interactions -- express the same message.

The reason: In the brand-first enterprise, everything about the company is derived from an emotional blueprint, a central organizing principle, a compelling essence, which we like to call Brand DNA. Virgin calls it Virginity. Disney calls it Magic. Nickelodeon calls it Kid Power. It's the yin that balances the yang of the business plan, the mantra against which every consumer-facing move the organization makes is evaluated.

The challenge of modern business, and the real job for marketing-driven organizations, is the creation of a true brand-first enterprise. To some, this sounds obvious-yet few have achieved it. To others, it sounds simple-yet it requires a degree of self-examination that proves a true test of corporate resolve.

The Age of the Brand

The creation of the brand-first enterprise is nothing short of essential today, in an age where consumers have increasingly less time and more options; and where every contact with a company represents a brand-defining experience. Either you create a brand-first enterprise, or you are vulnerable to myriad threats stemming from consumers' reactions to an increasing array of lifestyle options pursued "at Internet speed."

Today's consumers are increasingly self-actualized. They have full bellies, warm clothing, reasonable accommodation and a passable mode of transportation. They aren't looking to buy things that simply do something anymore - that was the age of the product. They're looking for things that help them be something, express something, or fill some unmet higher need state - and that is the age of the brand.

People drink coffee in Starbucks partly because on an emotional level it represents the new village green, the third space between work and home that has disappeared in modern culture. They tap away on their iMacs because they fancy themselves lateral thinkers, mavericks, iconoclasts.

Brands aren't so much products to hawk anymore; they're vehicles to an emotional connection people want to make. Success looks like this - either there's chemistry, or there's not. That small, incredibly valuable piece of emotional real estate in these consumers' hearts and minds is the one territory that marketers can meaningfully own.

So let's just forget rational product differentiation. Today's technology creates parity in everything from distribution to the aroma of a product, before the ink on the packaging has dried. Something, though, has to remain fixed as a foundation for organizations that morph constantly to meet changing demands. Something has to serve as the center from which every point of contact that forms a customer experience springs. That something is the brand, which must act as the central organizing principle in this "New Economy."

The Brand-First Test

The first step to brand-first enterprise is knowing your starting point. Are you brand-first? If not, what specific elements can you build into the organization to get there? The following is a simple test that has paid off in powerful brand turnarounds for companies such as Winstar and Motorola.

1. If you had to give up one and start from scratch, would you give up your brand or the entirety of your business operations? In a brand-first enterprise, the brand is the source of the organization, and all you need to rebuild it.

2. Does your brand report to one person who has authority over individual functions and final say over all communications and operations decisions that affect the brand? One final authority and a single chain of messaging are critical to achieving a brand-first enterprise.

3. Ask a random sampling of 25 employees to articulate your brand in five words. If your total list of words is longer than 10, your Brand DNA is not established.

4. Can you clearly articulate your brand vision without mentioning the advertising? There's no backing into brand generation through advertising.

5. How do your building, office lobby and business card communicate your brand? These are two of the most visceral, frequent brand impressions your company makes, and they should follow through on a specific purpose.

6. What do your core loyalists think of your website? If dedicated brand champions don't get an enriching brand experience online, you don't have a brand site.

7. Name three major on-going societal trends that confirm the need for your brand?

8. If your brand were a perfume, what would it smell like?

9. Name five things your brand would/should never ever do. It's impossible to screen all organizational actions against a principle you can't articulate.

10. If you were pitching investors, what page number in your presentation would be entitled "brand strength?" It's either first page, or you're not brand-first.

Few companies' marketing chiefs or CEOs have ready answers to these questions. The sum total of classic marketing training has rendered brands simply the locus for marketing communications activities, rather than the heartbeat of business.

In light of the U.S. economy deceleration that has sent multinationals scrambling for operational streamlining and other cost-cutting measures, brand-first reorientation is a critical need.Rarely have companies cost-cut their way to greatness; they need some solid center from which to expand, predictably and profitably. The place to start? Shift brand thinking from the tunnel vision of advertising and promotion, and move on to how the company operates in its entirety.


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