Unbrand to stand out in the market


For organizations hoping to grow, the mantra is often: faster, better, cheaper. But is this an effective way to build and sustain a brand in an age of consumer skepticism, marketing noise, economic uncertainty and declining product differentiation?

Studies show that as consumers move online, buying decisions increasingly hinge on factors such as social proof, honesty and regular engagement. Firms that fail to pivot their marketing strategy to address these trends increasingly lack integrity and purpose in the eyes of consumers and put themselves at risk of becoming targets of fickle, social-media-enabled customers and activists (see: J.P. Morgan’s #AskJPM campaign).

That’s why some companies are embracing what I call “unbranding” to maximize brand equity and minimize risk. While traditional branding appeals to the left side of the brain — faster, better, cheaper — unbranding appeals to the right side: trust, aspiration, purpose.

  • Trust is is achieved by building credibility through transparency (see: Costco).
  • Aspiration is achieved by developing a brand that aligns with who the customer wants to be (see: Coach).
  • Purpose is achieved by articulating a clear set of values that permeates the entire customer experience (see: Apple).

McDonald’s Corp. is perhaps the most successful unbrander to date. Spurred by customer research and in response to socio-cultural developments, they launched “Our Food. Your Questions.” — a digital hub where McDonald’s employees, suppliers and nutrition experts answer questions from curious consumers and dispel myths that have long plagued the global fast-food giant. Here is a sampling from the site:

Q Is your meat made of cardboard?
A “Cardboard is for moving boxes, meat is for eating.”

Q Did McDonald’s hold a competition to make an edible burger out of worms?
A “We’ve never held such a competition.”

Q Is your beef processed using ‘pink slime’ or ammonia?
A “No.”

Q Why is the food at McDonald’s so cheap?
A “Buying power.”

Q Is your food tasty?
A “Is the Earth round?”

This program is not about bragging, preaching or evading. Rather it’s about dialogue, humility and openness. For McDonald’s, this represents a paradigm shift in how the company builds its brand and reinforces its core message of quality.

“Today, brands need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and challenge convention,” says Antoinette Benoit, senior vice president, national marketing, McDonald’s Canada. “It’s important for us to have an ongoing and transparent two-way conversation with our customers in order to make a meaningful and long-lasting connection with them. This not only enables us to tell our story but also to evolve our brand based on what’s important to our customers.”

This unbranding strategy has contributed to improving the overall perception of McDonald’s. The idea came out of the Canadian wing of the company, but benefited from further development by McDonald’s France and McDonald’s U.K., both of which were able to overcome business and public relations challenges and grow revenues. The campaign has now been adopted in Australia, New Zealand, the United States and parts of Latin America.

Behind the success of this unbranding strategy was an up-to-date understanding of consumer needs, a return to focusing on historical core values (“quality” in the case of McDonald’s) and courage on the part of management to follow though on the program’s requirement for honesty, transparency and directness. Moving forward, McDonald’s will build on the strategy’s success by incorporating these learnings across the entire customer and partner experience through new training, advertising and more.

How can you make unbranding work for your business?

  1. Understand who you are as company. This should be based on your institutional values, history and how you are perceived within the marketplace.
  2. Identify your customer’s needs. This should be accomplished through both traditional and new marketing-research techniques.
  3. Create a vision or ethos for your company. This should encapsulate who you want to be and how you want to be perceived as an organization.
  4. Select the appropriate communications methods. Understanding how to articulate your message is as important as knowing what your message is.
  5. Unify your message across all customer touch points. Consistency is key in articulating a message that will both resonate and change perception.

For more information on our services and work, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc. web site.

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