Brand Preview 2018: Time to stand out

As we look at the year ahead there are lots of questions, and very few answers. In an environment of economic uncertainty there is an opportunity for bold, ambitious businesses to stand up and stand out. There’s an opportunity to be a point of consistency, in an unstable landscape. At the heart of this is your brand.

Your brand provides everything you need to be distinctive, memorable and engaging. And over the next 12 months this could be the difference between hitting your targets and missing them.

Stand for something
This year has seen companies take a stand for issues they believe in. This isn’t something new, US outdoor clothing brand Patagonia has been campaigning for a more sustainable approach to business (and life) for years. In the UK, The Body Shop campaigned for an end to the animal testing of cosmetics in the 1980s. But the changing political climate, in Europe and the US, is pushing more companies to take a stand.

At the Superbowl in February Airbnb screened an advert — We Accept — that was seen as an implicit rebuke of President Trump’s recently announced immigration ban. The company have backed up that stance with their Open Homes platform. Airbnb will connect agencies working to house refugees, with volunteers willing to take them in. They weren’t alone. Amazon, Ford, Goldman Sachs, Google and Microsoft also came out against the policy. Starbucks took it one step further and pledged to employ 10,000 refugees within five years.

It’s not only political decisions that are driving companies to act. Black Friday is a polarizing event. While some retailers see it as an opportunity to boost pre-Christmas sales, others reject it entirely. Hiut Denim, a company in Wales that makes premium jeans, closed down their website for the day. The statement on their website read: “As a small maker, we come in each day to make the best jeans we can, not the most jeans we can. We charge a fair price for them, enough we hope to keep us going as a business. But for us, Black Friday feels like a battle to see who can be the cheapest. But don’t worry, we will be open tomorrow. When common sense returns.” In the US, REI (an outdoor clothing co-op with a $2.5 billion turnover) closed all of its 151 stores, and encouraged its staff to get outside.

These moves aren’t part of a marketing strategy. They’re not a ploy to drive sales (although they often garner a lot of media attention). They’re acts that could have a negative impact on the companies concerned — there was criticism as well as support on social media — but they do it anyway.

Companies that take a stand recognise that they don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re part of society — the same society as their customers. They can’t ignore what happens around them. If they do there is a risk that they will appear out of touch. Distant. Remote. But if they engage with the issues effecting society, and the communities where they do business, companies will be connected to their customers. Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, said, “If people believe they share values with a company, they will stay loyal to the brand.”

Don’t be afraid to stand for something. If there’s something you care about, show it. Share it. Be human. Start with your ‘purpose’. A short statement that describes why you exist. If you don’t have one, write one down. That will make it clear — to you, and your customers — what you stand for. And what you stand against.

Focus on the benefit
If economic uncertainty is making your customers nervous, you need to give them a compelling reason to spend their money. Whether you sell to consumers or businesses, you need to give your customers confidence — confidence that what you’re offering is worth having. You need to make a clear, bold statement about the benefit your product or service will deliver.

make indulgent desserts. They make no attempt to shy away from that. Their call to action is “Pleasure seekers grab your spoons!”. If you’re looking for a healthy option, you should look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for a great taste experience — without compromise — you’re in the right place. Their bold positioning has worked. From an initial investment of £100,000, they reached sales of £11m within two years. Now one of their desserts is sold every two seconds, somewhere in the world.

Miele have been manufacturing kitchen appliances since 1899. Their strapline is “Immer Besser” — forever better. It isn’t a clever slogan developed as part of a marketing strategy, it was there from the outset as a statement of purpose. A focus on quality is at the heart of the business. Their products are built to last for 20 years, and regularly top consumer surveys. Miele make premium products with a premium price tag, but you don’t have to buy them very often.

Amazon has been a pioneer of ecommerce. They have brought convenience to customers around the world. Their customer focused approach was about more than just the speed of delivery. They introduced the concept of suggesting other related items you might be interested in, and giving you the opportunity to read reviews from other people who had brought the product. The Amazon Prime membership model has brought new levels of customer service, and their innovative Dash Buttons allow you to reorder popular items with the touch of a single button. Amazon recognized from the outset that convenience nurtures loyalty in their customers.

Each of these companies has identified a benefit they can bring to their customers, and have built their businesses around delivering that benefit, at every opportunity. If customers are uncertain about making a financial commitment in 2018, the ability to focus on — and remain focused on — a clear benefit, might be what you need stand out from the competition and give customers a nudge in the right direction.

Be valuable to your customers
The relationship between companies and their customers is changing. Customers are looking for ‘value’ — for something extra. They can buy the products or services you offer somewhere else (and maybe cheaper). So why choose your company?

A good place to start is giving something, and asking nothing in return. It’s a great way to build a community around your business and the products or services you sell. The easiest thing to give away (usually) is your knowledge, expertise and experience. The insight you have in your sector, whether that’s the accumulated knowledge of your team, or the experience gathered through many years of working with customers, is an incredible asset.

Speedo, the swimwear brand, have created an app for swimmers. Speedo On is a digital experience that will inspire and engage swimmers of all levels. Swimmers get training plans, personalised content with tips and advice delivered to the app and sophisticated tracking and analysis of their performance. What Speedo gets in return is a deeper understanding of how their customers behave, helping them to build stronger relationships and deepen loyalty. is a website, run by L’Oreal, that offers tips, videos, advice and reviews of make up products. Although you can buy products, the focus of the site is engaging users with valuable content, not sales. L’Oreal’s involvement is limited to a logo and a brief description at the foot of the page.

While digital platforms do offer great opportunities enhancing the customer experience, the physical world can be equally powerful. Open Farm Sunday is an annual event held in the UK, where farms across the country open their gates and invite the public into their fields. It’s an opportunity for customers to get closer to their food — whether that’s a veg box, a packet of sausages or a pint of milk — and learn more about where it comes from. It’s a much more powerful experience than a trip to the supermarket.

The key to success with this approach is to talk about the topic — swimming, make up, food — without talking (directly) about your products. It’s about sharing information, not sales messages, and demonstrating that you’ve got something interesting to say. The introduction of GDPR is going to make this approach even more valuable. With companies needing to receive explicit consent to email customers, evidence that you have something valuable to share with them will generate a far higher response to those consent requests.

The willingness to become part of a community, and demonstrate that you have more to offer than just a price list, will enable companies to build relationships with customers that are based on shared values, rather then the lowest price.

We may not know what the next 12 months has to offer, but one thing you can rely on is your brand. It’s yours. You control it. Whether it’s establishing what it is your company stands for, clearly communicating the benefit you bring to customers, or demonstrating that you share the same values as your customers, your brand gives you everything you need to stand out in 2018.

Photo by Mitch Mckee on Unsplash