This may seem obvious, but a brand is the identifier that lets customers know which product they are buying. It distinguishes between the products of different companies. In many cases, brands are trademarked. To prevent confusion with consumers, other companies are not allowed to use the same, or even confusingly similar brands. Makes sense, since companies spend a huge amount of money developing their brand, and don’t want the competition to reap the rewards.
Brands are supported by many forms of marketing. Many people can recall the ‘Tastes great-Less filling’ ad campaign. The logos of many companies are immediately recognizable, such as the red background and white script of Coca-Cola® or the Pepsi® ball. Jingles also support brands. Oreo® and Oscar Mayer® both used lyrics that were sung by millions.
Brands can identify companies (Honda®), products (Oreo®), or even fictional characters (Tickle Me Elmo®)—they can be used to differentiate just about anything. In some cases, the brand can even be cross-marketed with another product (Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer® edition).
A measure of the success of a brand is if a consumer can name it without prompting, called ‘unaided brand awareness’. In most cases, a strong brand will translate to higher revenue. Customers are generally willing to pay more for brands that they recognize. Not all brands result in financial success, however. On occasion, the cost of building a brand is greater than the benefit the brand brings. The Pets.com sock puppet had great awareness in the late 90’s, yet still failed to keep the company from closing in August of 2000. The strength of its brand is evident even today. You can still purchase a sock puppet on eBay®.
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Brands often carry value above and beyond the actual product or service. In some cases, this additional value is enormous. A truly successful brand not only creates a desired emotional response, but also helps separate customers from their money. Coca-Cola is known virtually around the world. The Coca-Cola brand adds value because it makes customers recognize their thirst, and seek out a soft drink to satisfy it. Simply walking by a vending machine stocked with the ice-cold carbonated beverage can make people salivate like Pavlov’s dog.
Brands contain one part perception and one part reality. This means that even with a world-class product, if the perception persists that there are frequent failures, the brand will be viewed as low quality. And, it is very difficult to change customer perceptions about quality. This is a major reason why auto manufacturers frequently have a distinct brand for its top tier automobiles. Acura® is the upscale car manufactured by Honda, as Lexus® is for Toyota®. People with significant money to spend on a car may want their purchase distinguishable from the ‘common’ brand. Lexus holds more prestige in its brand than does Toyota.
So, now let’s look at the role Lean and continuous improvement in general play in a customer’s perception of quality. As processes are standardized and improved, output quality often improves. Obviously, that helps the brand.
Continuous improvement efforts can also greatly affect brand perception in other ways. Lean can reduce lead time, making customers happy. This results in a more positive reputation for the company. Poor delivery times can bleed over to other aspects of a company—once a customer has negative thoughts about a brand, the floodgates open for customer complaints.
Improvement efforts can also change the perception about a customer service team. This is true in all aspects of service, but seems to be especially important in the turnaround time on items sent back for repair, under warranty or otherwise. When a customer is without his product, getting it back to him in a hurry shows your commitment to him, even after the sale. Again, frontline employees can help strengthen a brand.
Keep this in mind when reducing costs in an organization. These efforts should be transparent to the customer, or at least insignificant. Customers will feel betrayed by a brand that changes on them, and will take their business elsewhere. Every customer interaction is an opportunity to improve in your customers’ eyes.
This requires that you understand the needs of your customer—don’t make changes based on speculation. Use facts and data to support your improvement efforts. Don’t assume that you know what your customer wants. Consider an example of a customer service group that had always assigned its representatives to handle specific customers. What that meant was that the reps knew the customers and were really on top of answers, but it could sometimes take a while for the customer to get through to the correct person.
Nobody had bothered to ask the customers what they wanted. It turned out that most of the customers preferred to get to anyone who could answer their questions correctly. They didn’t need that specific person the vast majority of the time—any trained person could help them. The company had hurt its brand image while trying to meet an imagined customer need.
Seems intuitive, but some pretty smart people get tripped up with surprising frequency because they didn’t ask what their customers really wanted. And how can they create a strong brand if they don’t know the needs of their customers?
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