A million and one ways to make a brand meaningful
Millward Brown’s Nigel Hollis discusses his new book, and the many and varied ways in which brands can differentiate themselves from their competitors.
“The role of marketing is not simply to build familiarity or buzz,” says Nigel Hollis, chief global analyst at Millward Brown. “Its role is to build a shared and collective understanding of the brand in people’s minds by focusing attention on what makes the brand meaningfully different.”
Creating meaningfully different brand experiences is the subject of Hollis’s new book, The Meaningful Brand. (Meaningfully Different is also the name of Millward Brown’s most recent brand equity measurement framework).
Ahead of its publication, Hollis sat down with Research to discuss the central message of the book: that brand owners should stop focusing on volume sales and small percentage shifts in market share, and instead create experiences that will turn them into category leaders and allow them to charge a premium.
Research: How did the idea for the book come about?
Nigel Hollis: Theoretically a brand ought to make its money by commanding a premium. But we felt that was an element that was missing from pretty much every approach to brand equity measurement.
The focus on commanding a premium has become diluted because there are so many metrics now related to volume - you know, how many new accounts are being opened, what the churn is, how many cases you’ve solved, etc.
We tend not to think too much about what the margin was, and brands have become incredibly reliant on promotion in order to drive volume.
“We were pretty convinced that there were marketers out there that were missing a trick because (a) they were focused on the wrong metrics and (b) they were being remunerated against the wrong metrics”
Is this a reflection of the state of the economy – that brands don’t want to be seen to be talking about charging a premium?
NH: I hate to say this as a market researcher, but I think it’s much more to do with the availability of metrics.
If you think about the traditional brand equity study, then - like as not - it was focused on predicting a market share figure that was volume-based.
So one of the questions that Gordon Pincott [Millward Brown’s chairman of global solutions] and I became focused on was, ‘What is it that allows a brand to justify a price premium?’
We were pretty convinced that there were marketers out there that were missing a trick because (a) they were focused on the wrong metrics and (b) they were being remunerated against the wrong metrics.
And so was this having a negative effect, as far as you could see, on the health of brands?
NH: Absolutely. It’s very difficult to measure, but what I can say is that what you often see when categories develop is that they’ll enter a period where there’s a status quo and a dynamic tension, where one company, one brand, will push a little bit - they may gain a little bit of ground - then another brand pushes back and neutralises whatever advantage the first brand came up with.
So you end up in this scenario with market shares that are only changing from year to year by less than a percentage point.
But then, along comes a brand who’s got something differentiated; something that reframes what the category stands for, and all of the incumbents are on the back foot.
There’s an example of this in the US from Gordon’s gin. Gordon’s had found itself losing leadership within the category, partly because it was so focused on fighting the other gin brands in the traditional battleground of ingredients, quality, which brand is trendier, etc. They decided that in order to become the leader again, they needed to take a step back and act like a leader. So they came up with the G&T campaign, with G&T used in the tagline, ‘Shall we g&t started’.
Essentially they were lining themselves up as the first drink of the evening. They’re focused on a specific occasion, on a moment when people say, “Oh, fancy a drink?” “Yeah.” “What shall we have?” So naturally the more you can invest your brand against that moment, to create a meaning around it, and the more salient you make it, then you really have something that will be effective.
“Understanding what makes your brand meaningfully different is only part of the equation. You then have to amplify that meaningful difference out in the marketplace”
Is that what it means, then, to be a meaningful brand?
NH: I refuse to be pinned down, as there are a million and one ways in which you can make a brand meaningful. The problem is that people tend to end up defining a category by a set of parameters and they don’t think outside of the box.
So, outside of the box could be, ‘We’ve been talking about functional benefits for five to ten years, let’s do something more emotional’. It could simply be taking an industry or category benefit and making it your own. I interviewed Mark Murray, the global consumer planning director at Diageo, for the book and one of the things he said, in reference to Johnny Walker and the ‘Keep Walking’ slogan, was: “Any whisky brand could’ve taken the idea of progress and made it their own, but we did it first and now it’s tough for anybody else to wrench that space away from us.”
I would suggest that is a classic example of creating meaning. It’s something that resonates with the target audience, it differentiates the brand from the other ones out there. But understanding what makes your brand meaningfully different is only part of the equation. You then have to amplify that meaningful difference out in the marketplace.
The book is set up as being a roadmap towards creating these meaningfully different brands, but what is the first step that brand owners need to take?
NH: Each brand needs to find its own territory, something that it can claim as its own and something that differentiates it from the competition. We often start by trying to get back to the origins of the company, the heritage of the brand. We run an exercise where we ask people inside a company to think about what really makes them passionate about their brands - because, if you look at the most successful brands in the world, usually they’re ones with a strong sense of purpose, where the people are passionate about what they do.
But it’s the intersection of four things - purpose, resonance, delivery and difference - that makes a meaningfully different experience.