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BrandLoop #14, April 2004

A Passion for Brands

We have been talking about the third age of branding for some time. The BrandLoop newsletters have looked to discuss some of the elements of such branding practices. One key area is that of differentiation. In the current marketing environment it is all too easy for new products and services to be copied, rendering competitive advantage often only short-term. One area that enables brands to stand apart from the crowd is a passionate set of consumers, or possibly even brand owners. Moreover, the consumers or brand owners are definitely champions of the brand.

A brand that is able to generate a level of passion will have a distinct advantage as it makes a stronger emotional connection with its target audience. For instance, does an Apple user have a different relationship with the computer than a Windows user? Why are some drivers passionate about their cars while others are not? Consequently, a passionate brand offers the brand owner the possibility to market the product or service in different ways. Brand or line extensions may be easier to launch; a higher level of feedback from consumers enables better brand development. Importantly, passionate consumers may undertake a lot of the marketing for you through generating word of mouth or “buzz” about the brand.

Defining a passionate brand

In order to define a passionate brand we need to uncover some of the traits that they may display. Some suggestions:

  • The brands are most likely to generate buzz, to get people talking about them.
  • They may enjoy cult status.
  • They could be aspirational.
  • They could be luxurious.
  • They may be a “badge” for the consumer’s lifestyle.

However, a passionate brand does not need to be expensive, luxurious, aspirational or even individual. A key trait is the very high level of emotional engagement with the consumer. A driver who is passionate about his or her car may not be driving an Aston Martin or a Ferrari. He or she may have an inexpensive mass-produced vehicle but the attachment to the car is emotional for different reasons such as a relationship with events that have taken place with the car or the role the car plays in the driver’s life. Therefore a definition of a passionate brand could be as follows:

A passionate brand is a brand that possesses a level of emotional engagement with its target audience far beyond the level that would normally be expected.

What does engagement mean?

This high level of engagement is loyalty to the brand taken to the extreme. These are consumers who would probably not buy an alternative if their brand was hard to find. They consume the whole of the brand, not just the product. An example of this loyalty is clear in the consumer outrage when Coca-Cola changed the formula of its core brand. Soon the original, Coca-Cola Classic, was back on the shelves of retailers. Fashion brands such as Nike or adidas may also experience these levels of loyalty when consumers tattoo the “swoosh” icon or the three stripes onto their bodies. It is as if the brand has its own fan club.

Engagement could also mean having a substantial impact or encouraging a major change in consumers’ lives. The brand adds something different.

A lifestyle thing

A passionate brand says something about the person. The brand forms part of that person’s lifestyle. By using a particular brand, the consumer is saying something about himself or herself. The brand adds to their personality.

Furthermore, the passionate brand can also indicate that the owner of consumer belongs to a select group. This could be a fairly exclusive group but not necessarily so. Sports brands such as football clubs could fit this description. Another area of interest could be fashion brands where the brand encourages a level of passion amongst their wearers. Again, the brand acts as an identifier for the consumer and firmly places them within a select group, making a statement about their lifestyle.

The growth of Web sites, mailing lists and other communities built around brands is an example of how a passionate brand can act as a bond between consumers. Some marketers actively encourage the development of communities around the brand. This has the advantage of not only keeping their best customers happy but it can also be used as part of an opinion leader strategy, helping to develop new products and services and gaining critical feedback from the most important consumers.

Focused or generalist

Is a passionate brand highly focused on one particular category or can the brand span different, unrelated categories? Apple is highly focused. Its area of expertise is not computers but creativity and it targets specific niches within the computer market that require a higher level of creativity. This contrasts with the generalist approach of the Intel/Windows PC. Consequently, Apple’s focus provides strength within those sectors and helps to develop passion for the brand amongst its users.

Could Virgin be described as a passionate brand? Certainly, its challenger approach and ability to move almost seamlessly across product and service categories suggest a high level of consumer engagement.

Delivering passion

The other side of a passionate brand is where the brand owner is passionate about the brand. We suggest that where a brand owner is able to demonstrate this level of passion, he or she will be in a much stronger position to deliver a great customer experience. Often a company’s founders can be seen as possessing that level of passion. Sometimes when a brand or company is sold, it loses that passion and therefore the inertia it has as the new owners may acquire the assets but not the passion of the original owner. 

A brand owner who is passionate about the brand is energetic and enthusiastic. In an ideal world this is radiated throughout the company so that the whole workforce is engaged and able to deliver an enhanced customer experience. This has major implications for the way in which internal marketing is handled in the organisation. Good and effective internal marketing has the potential to engage employees and make them passionate about the brand.

Marketers that wish to deliver passion must work to ensure that they recruit the best staff and use internal marketing to help to develop that passion. It may be more effective to recruit staff who are able to communicate passion for the brand and then train them in the brands. The sandwich chain Prêt à Manger is an excellent example here of how the organisation can employ staff who are “on-message” from the start and are therefore passionate about the brand. Such an approach means that the staff deliver a higher level of customer experience.

Implications

Marketers who have passion brands are in a very fortunate position. The task is to identify whether there are any such brands in the portfolio and, if so, how this aspect can be developed and encouraged. Not all brands can be described as passionate so it is important which brands possess this trait and how the brand marketing can be developed to reflect this.

Can a new brand be developed so that it becomes a passion brand? There is no reason why this cannot happen as long as the conditions are right. The brand and its marketing need to make that necessary emotional engagement with consumers. This could start by following the Brand Experience route so that the brand has multiple consumer touch-points and allows genuine dialogue between the brand (owner) and the consumer. Product performance and customer service must be exceptional. Product failure or disinterested staff do not encourage the development of passionate brands.

At the same time it is important to identify something that is unique in the brand. This is beyond a USP and beyond its features and benefits but something that is almost loveable. This starts to help form an emotional attachment beyond the mere functionality of the brand. Furthermore, there should be something inherently enjoyable about consuming the brand. For example, using an Apple computer makes you more creative, driving an Aston-Martin is a driving pleasure, wearing certain brands of clothes or jewellery makes you feel happier.

Action points

  • Can any of your brands be described as passionate?
  • What brands are unique in an emotional way?
  • Are staff passionate about the brand?
  • How can consumers be engaged on an emotional level?
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