Innovative brands must build equity, not just borrow it

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Meaningful transformation isn't about tacking on a new product service but about designing a total brand experience, says Redscout West's head of strategy.

It seems like every day we hear stories of how a new-to-the-world brand is fundamentally transforming a long-stagnant category. "We should do that," many established business leaders think. "We should be more like them." Given today’s marketing challenges, it’s easy to understand the "silver bullet" allure of borrowing approaches that are working for others.

But this form of reactionary innovation misses the point entirely. Consider Sealy’s new Casper-facsimile "Cocoon" offering. While Cocoon may be a great product, it doesn't account for the real shift that happened—consumers aren't buying a mattress in a box, they're buying a new way to sleep. This can’t just be retrofitted into Sealy’s brand promise. 

Meaningful transformation isn’t about tacking on a new capability, product, service or audience. It’s about designing a total brand experience that is real and true to your brand’s DNA.

So, how do you pursue the brand you want to become without losing sight of the brand you are? 

First, understand what business you are in.
When kicking off with a new client, ask a seemingly dumb question to understand whether this is a moment for evolution or revolution: "What business are you in?" While simple, this question often sparks a more thoughtful way of thinking about how partners can build, not just borrow, brand equity.

We like this question because it forces a reconciliation with how an organization views a brand and how it is experienced in the world. It illuminates organizational and operational biases, while highlighting potential opportunities. It forces business leaders to differentiate between what their brand does and what consumers expect of them. Most important, it purposefully provokes a conversation about perspective.

For example, when a major pet supplier came to us for a brand booster shot, we helped them understand that they weren’t just in the business of supplying for pets' needs, they were really in the business of nurturing relationships between pet parents and their animals. Rather than simply chasing "what’s hot" in pet supplies or retail, they could now approach private label innovation from an ownable perspective. Instead of "me-too" products, they saw their innovation as a tool to help pet parents foster a deeper connection with their pets.

Try asking the question. Then, take it one step further by asking: "but what if we were a business that did X?"

Second, understand what consumers love you for.
At a time when many are sprinting to reimagine their brands to attract the latest, "most valuable segment," it’s important to push for deep insight about how your brand actually connects with people.

For example, take JetBlue’s Mint service. A few years ago, it made very little sense: Why would a low cost carrier want to reinvent the business cabin experience? Fast forward to today, Mint is expanding its suite-like transcontinental services nationally and abroad, and it is clear this is a brand operating with incredibly deep insight.

They recognize consumers don’t value JetBlue as a "low cost" carrier, but as a "high value" one, making the potential for creating innovative offerings unlimited. JetBlue consumers want a "better-than" option. Mint delivers on that desire in a way that’s true to the brand’s DNA—frills where they count, priced right.

Ultimately, the transformation process will always be defined by left-turns and unknowns. Asking the right big questions about your business—who it serves, and why you have a right to win—can help ensure transformation strengthens your brand, rather than stretches it.

Alex Cripe is Head of Strategy at Redscout West.