For some time now many marketers have been consumed with “brand building”, spending more time and money espousing the virtues of their brand and less time and money on the specific attributes of the products or services offered by their brand. Marketing a product or service is all about establishing the comparative advantages of your product or service over your competitors (including price) and trusting that consumers will perceive and value the comparative advantages of your particular product or service. In the parlance of technology marketing, “faster, cheaper, better wins.” However, product or service marketing strategies must always contend with the possibility (or probability) that competitors will develop a better product or service that must be countered in some way to maintain market share, whether it is developing a newer and/or better product or service and/or adjusting pricing. For some products or services this can become a never-ending cycle of readjusting to current market conditions for the relative appeal of the company’s offerings.
Branding is about establishing a unique emotional connection
Establishing a connection with consumers that transcends the features, attributes, and/or amenities of specific products or services. At its best it is a promise between the brand and the consumer that the company will always offer the products or services that are expected and deliver on that unique emotional connection. It is this trust that allows marketing to be less concerned with competing on a specific product or service attributes, avoiding the cycle of constant readjustment to competitor’s offerings. That is not to say that product or service attributes are entirely irrelevant as the company must not slip into being perceived as offering an inferior product or service. Rather products or services must continue to evolve with the prevailing level of technology and pricing within the respective industry while maintaining the established unique emotional connection with consumers.
However, branding requires a considerable amount of upfront effort to find that unique emotional connection with consumers and the long term pay-off may be difficult to quantify, so some marketers are hesitant to make that effort. For products or services that are highly customizable and/or easily differentiated branding may not prove worth the return on investment. For products and services that are quite similar and/or serve the same utilitarian needs, branding can become that point of differentiation that persuades consumers to favor one brand’s offerings over their competitors. The difficult question becomes how to determine the pay-off likely to be gained from branding efforts.
Perhaps a case study can be illuminating in this regard. Specifically, consider the decision of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) to pursue a branding campaign for the destination in 2002. In full disclosure, I must acknowledge that I (and my company) have been conducting market research in and about Las Vegas as a travel destination for over 30 years and have been contracted by the LVCVA and their advertising agency of record, R&R Partners, for many studies over these years. A couple of years prior to the commencement of the branding campaign, the LVCVA and R&R Partners realized that casino gaming would become increasingly available to travel consumers and that a broader concept of entertainment would need to be employed to market the destination effectively. At the same time, they realized that simply promoting the newest amenities and facilities of Las Vegas would lead to that cycle of responding to current market conditions when competitors were building their own mega-resort properties and entertainment options.
Extensive market research is an integral ingredient
The LVCVA and R&R Partners embarked on an extensive research effort with leisure travel consumers to understand the emotional appeal of Las Vegas to prospective visitors. What they found was that a leisure trip to Las Vegas was about “adult freedom.” Adult freedom meant that Las Vegas visitors could indulge themselves in behavior that they might not indulge in back home without judgment. The type of behavior indulged in was never proclaimed and remained for each adult to define for them self. This appeal led to the iconic advertising tagline “What Happens Here Stays Here” and many years of award-winning and effective advertising executions.
Equally important to the adult freedom concept was the uniqueness of Las Vegas to offer this appeal. Where else could you enjoy this sense of adult freedom? (Nowhere else!) Further, travel consumers were enthralled by the thought that something extraordinary may happen or they might have some experience that they probably couldn’t have anywhere else. Again, the specific experience was not defined but left to the imagination of the prospective visitor. The unique emotional connection between Las Vegas and leisure travel consumers was clearly established.
Armed with a well-defined branding strategy and some initial creative executions, LVCVA staff and R&R Partners needed some sense for the value of a branding campaign for Las Vegas. Would it provide a better return on investment than a product/amenity oriented campaign? In response, we developed a behavioral model of the intent to visit Las Vegas using survey data from our ongoing tracking study of domestic travel consumers. The survey questions quantified comparative perceptions of Las Vegas vis-á-vis other leisure trip destinations across many dimensions including product and amenity features as well as the image of Las Vegas. The results of this behavioral modeling effort confirmed that promoting the image of Las Vegas had roughly three times the impact on intent to visit than promoting any of the product or amenity features. This information encouraged the LVCVA to pursue a brand-building campaign as the primary marketing strategy for Las Vegas.
The specifics will differ for marketers faced with how to allocate marketing dollars and resources for their particular product(s) or service(s) and brand building may not be the best solution for all instances. However, branding campaigns can be very impactful for products or services that are or may become, increasingly difficult to differentiate, and their relative worth can be assessed using commonly available behavioral modeling techniques.
By: Gary Stieger