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Secret Sauce As a Brand

Special SauceLast week, I wrote about B2B branding: Your audience may not be comprised of “consumers” per se, but it’s still made up of people. People have preferences, loyalty and affinity for certain brands.

So how do you make sure your brand communicates what’s unique and special about you? In essence, what’s the secret sauce that sets you apart?

Making Your Own Secret Sauce

Many clients hire us because they’re having trouble articulating exactly what it is that makes them who and what they are. A lot of our identity work gets to the heart of this—helping clients tell their stories. Even if you aren’t embarking on an identity project, you can still follow some simple principles:

  1. Realize that you never have nothing: If you aren’t widely known for your secret sauce, that doesn’t mean you don’t have it. It can be difficult to pinpoint, and even harder to communicate (and often it’s easier to engage someone to help you find it—which is why it makes up a lot of the work that we do). But there is something worthwhile that sets you apart, and finding it is worth the effort.
  2. Don’t try to be something you’re not: If what you’re attempting feels inauthentic, it’ll be hard to make a shift that will turn employees (likely your most important audience) into brand ambassadors. Take Marshall, for example. We may not the hippest kids on the block, but we’re thoughtful, strategic and big-picture thinkers. Because we know this, we’re able to focus on what we do best.
  3. Don’t be afraid of aspiration: You may need to consider how well your identity tells a clear and cohesive story about your company. When you set out in a direction that is aspirational and authentic, you’ve turned identity into a strategic priority, not just a communications tool.

You’ve got a secret sauce baked in there somewhere, and it’s an essential component of your identity that you should use to your advantage.

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B2B Buyers are People, Too

You might think that in the business-to-business space, brand awareness and loyalty is less important than it is for consumer brands.

VMware tattoo

One of VMware’s customers tattooed the company’s logo on the back of his head, a move that demonstrates a pretty personal commitment.

But some branding experts believe that brands matter even more in B2B than in B2C. Why? Many B2B companies compete in a confusing or fragmented marketplace. Often they’re trying to differentiate highly technical offerings by focusing on functional aspects. It’s a cliché of B2B marketing that it’s all “speeds and feeds,” and that connecting on a more personal level is for the consumer realm.

But initiatives that focus on creating value for B2B brands can have tremendous payoff. A Harvard Business Review study on B2B brands concluded that the corporate brand is responsible for an average 7 percent of stock performance. Depending on your market cap, brand equity can mean hundreds of millions of dollars.

People Make Emotional Decisions

Preference and loyalty decisions are not unemotional, logic-driven events—even in the B2B space. Forrester analyst Laura Ramos, who blogs about areas of concern to CMOs, wrote that many B2B marketers still don’t understand that “B2B is really about the people.”

When I was studying integrated marketing in graduate school, one exercise came up time and again: Answer the question: “Do you have a favorite brand, and why?” Responses were mostly consumer brands, and explanations were always fascinating. Ask yourself about anything “Why do I want this or not want it?” Is it the color? Is it the ingredients? Is it what you feel in your hands? Is it the price? Is it the name? You can apply what you learn even to complex B2B products. A client of ours sells sophisticated scientific instruments and faces a competitor whose arguably inferior product has benefited from significant brand investment, best demonstrated by its sleek-sounding name. Even a marketplace filled with highly logical and analytical thinkers can be swayed by the sense that a cool brand makes the product inherently more desirable.

Some of our B2B clients inspire fanatical loyalty that most consumer brands can’t match. One of VMware’s customers tattooed the company’s logo on the back of his head. A tattoo is a pretty personal commitment, but the product enabled this person to feel like a rockstar in his professional life. Professional decisions are emotional choices. What matters in the end is that you’re offering your customers something that matters to them.

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Allegheny Health Network

Allegheny Health NetworkWe are pleased to announce the launch of Allegheny Health Network, a revolutionary model for healthcare delivery developed by our client, Highmark, with brand strategy, naming and identity development by Marshall Strategy.

After acquiring the West Penn Allegheny hospital system, Highmark assembled a patient-centric, progressive new network for delivering affordable, high quality healthcare within western Pennsylvania. Highmark chose to name this new model Allegheny Health Network, to take advantage of existing equity and a tradition for excellence at Allegheny General Hospital. In its new incarnation, we recommended communicating the key attributes of expertise, progressiveness and teamwork.

In partnership with renowned designer Jerry Kuyper, Marshall developed a cohesive brand strategy, naming architecture and visual identity system for Allegheny Health Network. The resulting system is fresh, engaging, and immediately recognizable. The new symbol arches upward, suggesting optimism and a fresh, progressive approach to health and wellness–its green and blue diamonds compose a larger mark that conveys both teamwork and patient-centricity.

When used in combination with a hospital or service name, the symbol, color palette and Allegheny Health Network endorsement create an immediate sense of presence and connectivity, enabling a variety of distributed facilities, services, and physician groups to build awareness for the overall network. The new system will connect seven hospitals, multiple specialized outpatient care centers, and 7,900 professionals from more than 200 physician practices into one of the strongest networks in Pennsylvania.

So far, local business press has been positive. We look forward to seeing how Allegheny Health Network’s new market presence helps transform health care delivery for the better.

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Shifting Perceptions of Branding in Higher Education

Higher educationIn one of my colleague Jon’s recent posts, he wrote about one sign that you may need to reconsider your identity: your industry is changing. One industry we work in frequently—higher education—is currently going through significant change. Societal trends, shifts in funding priorities and emerging technologies are all contributing to increased competition: for the best students, for top faculty, for funding, for leadership and for reputation. Against this backdrop, branding and identity are increasingly important.

The Importance of Branding

“[A] properly constructed brand is essential for any university competing in the modern global education market,” wrote Ian Pearman, CEO of the UK’s largest ad agency, in a recent piece on the importance of higher ed branding (“Universities are brands whether they like it or not”) that accompanies a global study of the 100 most powerful global university brands.

But branding and higher ed have an often uneasy relationship. Research conducted at the University of San Francisco looked at the impact of branding on California institutions (including several of our clients) and found positive correlations between branding and campus identity, enrollment and foundation initiatives. In spite of this, many don’t see a role for branding and positioning in helping their schools achieve greater success.

Overcoming Reluctance

In our work with higher ed clients we’ve sometimes encountered a sense that academia should be above branding. For some, the word itself is synonymous with marketing or advertising, and there is the perception that this cheapens the important work that educators and researchers do. A development campaign created by our client UC Berkeley matched students’ portraits with quotes on what the school meant to them. The fact that “We are not a brand” was graffitied on a poster installation reveals strong opinions about brand in the context of higher education.

There are ways to navigate around this. When working with higher ed clients, we often refrain from using the word “brand” and instead talk about “identity.” This focuses the conversation on the key issues: who you are, what you do and why you matter. When put in those terms, we find that many in academia are comfortable with, even enthusiastic about what our work can help them to achieve.

Helping to Navigate a Complex Landscape

As the educational landscape becomes more and more complex, it’s increasingly important that higher ed institutions think hard about how they can frame their offerings for perspective audiences. I think back to my own experience as someone trying to decide where to attend graduate school. I was living in Southeast Asia at the time and ill-equipped to form a consideration set for what would be an incredibly important life decision. Institutions of higher learning may want to keep themselves above the fray of “marketing,” but by communicating a clear sense of identity, they can certainly help their audiences understand who they are and what they have to offer.

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