Since organized brands were first introduced over 100 years ago alongside industrialism, they have changed their nature and role in society. Brands have become ‘relation brands’ – brands that have a greater effect on people than the functional, product-oriented delivery of tangible, predictable benefits and features.
Brands are built on perceptions and experiences, and branding can be defined as managing perceptions and experiences in people’s minds. We are looking at different aspects of brands than we considered before. We like a brand to introduce us to new things. Brands should represent the future (or nostalgia), and make us feel updated and savvy. We want a brand to offer something that we proudly show off to friends; something that will become a new favorite.
The brand should be perceived as a leader of its category. This gives us confidence in the brand, even when this isn’t always true of its products or services. Some brands that are perceived as high innovation are not always first with the technology, but are first with exploiting a new user experience (like Apple and GoPro). It’s even better if we can identify with the brand and feel that the brand is ‘always reading my mind’, or that it’s one step ahead of me or making me, as a customer, feel special and important. It’s not just a different, new experience we’re looking for, it’s also the brand’s personality.
Again, this can be through a sense of nostalgia – when the brand is perceived as classic – or through following a new trend and being an agitator on the boundaries of its category. Customers already have very high expectations that the perceived top brands will be predictable in both their tangible deliveries and their personalities. I usually consider branding to be very similar to friendship, and positive surprises have always been a good way to maintain interest between friends. In fact, the same principle applies within any kind of relationship.
Surprise Leads To Brand Loyalty
This becomes most challenging for strong brands. Since we love to be positively surprised by our favorite brands, the surprise-effect makes us more loyal. And when we are more loyal to brands, our friends and family take notice and are influenced by us. Even when we don’t actually mention the brands in conversations, we are important promoters of the brands just by using them. We sometimes forget that.
When our favorite brands exceed the expectation we have of them, by giving us a surprise, we get more excited and our interest in and loyalty to the brand increases. One of the few things that makes us repeatedly loyal to a brand is experiencing something positively unexpected. And when a brand (and company) fails or vanishes from the market and our minds, it is usually caused by a lack of positive surprises for a long time. Surprises can become almost like a drug for us; the kick of the new and the different that we don’t want to be without. When the time between the kicks of surprise gets longer and longer, we lose interest. This is why brands that fail to deliver those kicks have a very hard time. Especially if the brand had previously given their customers reason to anticipate surprising innovations.
We can look at Google to see this. The Google brand is continuously on the rise, always coming up with new surprises and out-of-the-box ideas like Google Glasses, driverless cars or singularity research and thought leadership with Ray Kurzweil. Even all the start-ups Google picks up create surprise, despite Google’s prominent business strategy and its lead role in developing the digital world, the internet and mobile business. With Android, Uber, Waze, Nest and more, Google is continually surprising. Even the Google logo changes every so often, which a classic transaction brand would never do.
For contrast, we can turn to Apple. In the years following the death of Steve Jobs, the company’s flow of surprises slowed to a stop. The perception of Apple as an innovative company that challenged the status quo and looked at the world in a different way began to fade. The result was that their relationship with their many fans and brand supporters showed signs reminiscent of a fading marriage. This was reversed when Apple introduced several new products and concepts at one very important launch event, almost two years after Steve Jobs’ death.
Apple’s example shows that these failing brands have the ability to recover again, but this kind of long-term disappointment and lack of surprise can lead to the loss of even the most loyal customers of a brand. Not every strong brand that was temporarily perceived as boring returns to the same dynamic strength it had before.
Make Every Surprise Personal
The most important surprises are those that are presented in a personal manner. These are the surprises that we look forward to and anticipate, but are not sure that we’ll get. At the very least, we want our anticipation to be confirmed, which itself creates a sense of surprise.
We like new surprises, ones that make the brand more human and personal, such as the pulsing light when the first generations of Apple’s laptop computers were closed. Steve Jobs wanted it to mimic the beating of a human heart.
It’s of great importance for a relation brand to be perceived as personal. The tone of voice a brand uses today should be surprisingly human. The intuitive and proactive perception of the brand’s nature has to become genuinely human. We’re getting used to this now. The situation has matured and brands that don’t have the right, human tone of voice are perceived, more than ever, as cold-hearted and unfriendly, and it becomes hard to build a relationship with them.
Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Thomas Gad, excerpted from his book Customer Experience Branding, with permission from Kogan Page publishing.
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