How brands with 'soul' build far greater loyalty
In an internet interview with Laurence Knight, president of the US-based branding agency Fletcher Knight, The Wise Marketer explored the concept of 'brand soul', and its practical implications for both consumers and the corporate bottom-line.
The interview's first aim was to find out what Knight defines as "brand soul", and what differentiates a brand with brand soul from all its soulless competitors.
What is a brand soul? According to Knight, brands that have soul are the ones that share a passion or strong motivation with their consumers. These brands have a clear reason for being that allows them to speak with an authentic voice.
In contrast, brands without soul have to rely on 'hard sell' tactics because they are built on benefit-based positioning statements and poorer pay-offs that could be viewed by consumers as rather shallow. Brand soul is also often misinterpreted as 'a mission' or a charitable cause.
Examples of souls in action There are several examples of brands with real soul, particularly in the beauty products market. For example:
- For equality: Avon ("The company for women");
- For integrity: Kiehl's Ivory Soap ("Good clean fun for American families");
- For self esteem: Dove (Campaign for real beauty), L'Oreal ("Because I'm worth it"), and Olay ("Love the skin you're in");
- For humane causes: Body Shop ("Beauty without cruelty"), and Toms of Maine (socially responsible and environmentally sensitive);
- For natural resources: Natura Brazil, Origins, and Aveda.
According to Knight, "The Dove campaign for Real Beauty presents a shift in brand development. The Dove team discovered its brand's passion - the passion for being real. Dove is developing a deeply authentic, empathetic, heartfelt link with consumers."
Similarly, Kiehl's (originally a New York City pharmacy, founded in 1851) has a unique background that represents a blend of cosmetic, pharmaceutical, herbal and medicinal knowledge. Kiehl's is committed to high quality and strong values. Costs and efforts are focused on important product features such as quality and formulation and packaging. It's as if Kiehl's wants its consumers to think the pharmacist custom-made the product just for them when they went into the shop.
Benefits of brand soul Brand soul has many benefits, if it can be achieved cleanly and without appearing to be a shallow attempt to win consumers' favour by playing on their emotions.
By aligning clearly with consumer interests the brand's positioning becomes more authentic. This translates directly into increased consumer commitment and loyalty, which leads to the development of pronounced advocates and even a "fan base" that is prepared to evangelise for the brand. This, Knight says, is the true and measurable commercial pay-off of developing a soul for a brand.
Many beauty brands can increase their customer loyalty by increasing brand penetration. Brands with soul have higher levels of loyalty than average for their size, Knight has found. And, while most retail beauty brands show a fairly static conversion of traffic, consumers buying retail beauty brands with soul have a higher number of planned trips and show higher conversion rates.
Corporate soul effect There are also clear internal company benefits from aligning with brand soul principles, as it helps to define the ideals that the brand must "hold dear". It also encourages staff to use these ideals to focus team efforts in every department, from customer service through to product innovation.
But perhaps most importantly brand soul can help steer employee activity and commitment, particularly in the areas of customer service, sales, customer discovery, product development, and innovation. It can also be used to steer authentic equity development in sponsorship, alliances, and cause-related activities.
You just can't buy soul Knight warns that you can't buy soul - you have to feel it. And the best way to feel it is to tap into the grass roots passion for the brand that your consumers feel, and work with them to build and nurture the authentic voice.
For example, Fletcher Knight recently worked with a strong women's advocate beauty brand to reposition it across three continents. Tapping into the heritage and passion was obvious, and consumers wanted to see it modernised in a way that enhanced the soul.
Can brand soul be killed? The biggest threat to brand soul is radical change in personnel or a parent corporation. As an example of how this should be handled, Knight said: "Gatorade has real soul and the company maintains that by not only having a high degree of autonomy from Pepsi, but also by retaining a consistent brand team and a strong set of guiding principles that is rigorously applied".
And becoming obnoxious is another big risk for the brand's soul. The classic example is where an entrepreneur believes too much in his own success, and fails to understand that you can only nurture brand soul within the customer base. Brand soul lives more in a community of consumers, which means it is not completely and predictably controlled from the corporate centre.
Can brand souls be resurrected? Brand souls that have been lost can be recovered, but it isn't easy. If you lose your soul with consumers you should consider it the same tragedy as a marriage break-up. You had their complete trust, you were a major part of their lives, and something happened to break that trusting relationship.
To recover successfully, a lost brand soul needs to be nurtured and rebuilt over time with a careful combination of marketing, public relations, sponsorship, and cohort management.
Conclusion Knight concluded: "It's hard to survive on your head and heart only. To be complete you need soul. There is obviously a role for brands without soul, but it's more likely to be in something relatively impersonal such as banking."
Fletcher Knight works with clients to provide creative brand strategies in the food, personal care, healthcare, retail, media, apparel and auction markets.