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Endless amounts of money flow into focus group and field research in an attempt to find out what people really think about brands and why. It is surprising, then, how little substantive research is available on how people decide if they like a brand or not.

What Mark (and everybody else) really wants to know is: what parameters do consumers use to recognise a corporate identity, and what influences our perception of that identity? It seems that the answer, in short, is everything.

We have relationships with a company or product much like we do with people, argues Mary Weisnewski, principal of Kite Inc. What influences these relationships? Everything: “what they look like, how they act, how they make us feel, if they do what they say, whether they are consistent, and whether they are authentic – all the tangibles and intangibles that influence all relationships”, says Weisnewski.

“There are no neutrals – every interaction at every touch point will dilute or strengthen perceptions.”

For Mike Freedman, a partner at consultancy Freedthinkers, the meaning of a corporate identity flows from a blend of promise, personality and performance. Freedman uses BP as a case study. When BP began focusing its communication on its more sustainable and environmentally aware business practice, it changed its logo from a shield to a sun/sunflower to signify a change in company philosophy and direction to ‘Beyond Petroleum’.

In spite of the Texas rig explosion and a massive Alaskan pipeline leak that had environmentalists calling the company “Big Problems”, recent research conducted in the UK and USA among consumers shows BP is still perceived as a leader in tackling climate change, according to Freedman. “A powerful directional CI backed by a strong promise and appealing personality, will overcome occasional lapses in performance. It becomes a lovemark… and love does forgive,” Freedman concludes.

Our relationships with brands are a mixture of the emotional and the rational. Kate Wolters of Added-Value, a marketing insight group, says this is why consumer insight has to be a lot more than “why people like a brand”. The “why” will give you the post-rationalisation without the deeper emotional trigger. “We use a lot of cultural insight to get deeper into the triggers behind decisions – as often, culture plays a huge role,” says Wolters. “Observational and ethnographic research can also give you richer insight and if you’re in a traditional focus-group environment, you need to use sharper tools like sense- and gestalt-based techniques.”

Part of the emotional appeal of a brand relationship lies in our association with its images. When we see symbols and logos identifying companies that we don’t know anything about and have yet to experience, we will try to relate those symbols to things in our worldview, says Andrea Fitting, CEO and Brand Strategist for the Pittsburgh-based Fitting Group. She gives some examples: “Rounded corners, circles and ovals are [perceived as] friendly and non-threatening. Hearts are nurturing. Jagged lines are young and dynamic. Colour is an added dimension that is very powerful, because it has a tendency to influence our emotions. Yellow and red are energising; green and blue are calming and make us feel stable.”

So if everything influences consumer perceptions, from colour and symbols through every touch point available, how does a business ensure positive outcomes from so many touch points? “With ongoing focus, consistency, education and dedication,” says Weisnewski. Key touch points include employee and education, service excellence, consistent and meaningful communication internally and externally, leadership from managers and empowering brand champions within the organisation. Weisnewski also argues for dialogue with audiences and stakeholders.

Mark brand ambassadors extend to people ambassadors – a managerial position dedicated to flexible problem solving. They would support consumers who can’t get help through technical, account or service departments, and who would advocate on behalf of consumers through all departments of a business. Sometimes real people with an investment in consumer satisfaction are what are required to ensure a relationship that surpasses that of a rival brand.


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