Brand-Centric Transformation

Brand-Centric Transformation

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Brand-Centric Transformation

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    Understanding the Brand Benefit Ladder

    A data-driven approach to brand transformation requires that executives first understand what drives consumer choice in the product category and then translate that understanding into the core elements of the brand. To accomplish this, we rely on the “brand benefit ladder,” a tool commonly used by marketers to describe how specific product benefits layer to support one another in delivering a brand experience to the consumer. (See Exhibit 1.)


    Our basic brand benefit ladder includes the following elements:

    • Technical attributes include physical characteristics of a product or service, such as the ingredients, quality level, or aesthetics.

    • Functional benefits describe differences in how the product or service features are experienced and used by the consumer.

    • Emotional benefits capture the feelings inspired by the product or service.

    While technical attributes and functional benefits can vary between brands, they are not sufficient on their own to provide sustainable brand differentiation; ultimately, emotional benefits are the key to creating customer loyalty, preference, and willingness to pay.

    Some brand-ladder definitions will also incorporate a range of related “layers”—such as social or self-expressive benefits—that add greater depth to the emotional benefits near the top of the ladder. Social benefits, which convey the relationship between the brand and the individual, the community, and the social context, are increasingly important in today’s interconnected world. (See “Social Brand Benefits,” below.)

    Social Brand Benefits

    Have you noticed, at gatherings of top-level company executives, a new accessory displayed on the hotel conference table atop the ubiquitous notepad and pencil? Often, it is Apple’s iPad, a product that exemplifies the concept of “social” brand benefits.

    Emotional benefits—how it makes you feel—are at the core of the brand. But within and around the emotional layer are many other layers to explore, including benefits from self-expression (who I am and who I aspire to be) to values (what I stand for and what matters most in my life) to social (what group I am a part of and how I relate to society and to others).

    The social layer becomes particularly relevant in today’s interconnected world of digital media, online communities, and user-generated content. The iPad is a membership card to an exclusive club of early adopters—“first users” of the latest technology and trends. Similarly, your Whole Foods tote bag shows off your eco-conscious credentials. Your pair of Manolos signals that you shop with the best of the fashionistas.

    Social brand benefits affect not just how you feel inside but also how others perceive you, and with whom you can connect. Are they on your brand’s benefit ladder?

    Every successful brand has a brand benefit ladder that is relevant, differentiated, and fully experienced by the consumer. For example, travelers on Southwest Airlines feel thrifty and savvy because of rock-bottom ticket prices and no-frills service offerings delivered by high-energy employees. BMW owners feel proud to drive a superior performance vehicle grounded in German engineering. Starbucks customers feel indulgent when they consume the company’s high-end Arabica coffee beans.

    But simply using the brand ladder as a tool in brand strategy efforts doesn’t prevent suboptimal branding decisions. Unfortunately, marketers tend to stop at the emotional layer of the brand ladder and do not apply the necessary rigor in quantifying and fully understanding the links between the technical, functional, and emotional layers. In many cases, they also fail to use hard data to measure the value of potential brand investments and to prioritize tradeoffs. Finally, they struggle to implement the resulting brand-ladder elements and hold the organization accountable.

    Why is the implementation of a new brand strategy so difficult? In many cases, one part of the organization owns the emotional benefits while other parts manage the functional benefits and technical attributes. These groups may not interact very frequently, and their key performance indicators (KPIs) are typically misaligned. Often, each group is evaluated and compensated on the basis of technical attributes that are irrelevant to, or even negatively correlated with, the emotional benefits that they are meant to support.

    Emotional benefits are typically owned by the marketing organization and external advertising agencies—passionate brand gurus who may envision their role more as an art than a science. They may focus mainly on developing catchy messaging and gloss over the fundamentals of the product and customer experience. What’s more, they may fail to incorporate business metrics or opportunity sizing into their recommendations.

    Meanwhile, technical attributes and functional benefits are often controlled by an entirely different set of company departments. Product development, pricing, merchandising, field operations, and real estate, for example, may each oversee different aspects of the product or service features. These departments often make day-to-day decisions and tradeoffs independently, without considering the brand promise. Ultimately, coordination across these teams on any holistic brand-transformation effort becomes a massive undertaking.