How to Achieve Brand Relevance

Have you ever caught yourself teaching or advocating what you believe is an important point only to realize you aren't exactly sure yourself what it means? I'm not talking about speaking on points on which you are not knowledgeable, but a subject that you understand yet may not truly grasp how an idea or theory really works. It happened to me recently when I was reading an article by Tom Denari, CEO of Young & Laramore, an Indianapolis advertising agency. The title of the article was provocative- "Nobody Really Cares about Your Brand"- of course I had to read on. As I did, it dawned on me that an important point I try to convey to my students could be sharpened with perspective gained from reading Denari's article.

Your Brand Should be Relevant-What Does that Mean?
One of the most important tenets of marketing strategy I emphasize to students is the need to achieve brand differentiation. A brand succeeds in intensely competitive markets by standing out, not merely by being different but by creating value for customers that makes the brand different in a relevant way. A strong case can be made for pursuing brand relevance. Without a distinctive position to differentiate a brand, it is destined to be mired in mediocrity as a "me too" brand. But, what does it really mean to achieve brand relevance? Who defines what is relevant? As the article of Tom Denari's article suggests, customers are not nearly as interested in brands as the brand owners are. They are not too wrapped up in comparing features and benefits among competing brands; they simply want products and services that add value by making their lives easier, more productive, enjoyable, or whatever the desired benefit might be. This reality about customers has huge implications for defining your brand's relevance.

How to Achieve Brand Relevance
Fortunately, Tom Denari does not leave us in despair after pointing out that people really do not care about brands. He offers a straightforward solution to achieving brand relevance: be culturally relevant. Denari cites Nike, Apple, and Starbucks as three brands that went beyond developing great products and attained cultural relevance. Nike (aligning with world class athletes), Apple (transforming the user experience of consuming music and mobile computing) and Starbucks (created consumption experiences around coffee) became culturally relevant by focusing on how they could not only serve customers' needs but have meaning in their daily lives, too. Although these brands are exemplary for creating relevance, the scope of impact need not be groundbreaking. Denari cites the Old Spice advertising and social media campaign from a few years ago as creating cultural relevance for a brand typically thought of as "my grandfather's after shave."

Fortunately, you do not need to have the resources of Nike, Apple, or Starbucks to create a relevant brand. What is needed is a way in which you connect with customers that matters to them. The local car dealership that is a sponsor of high school sports teams can be culturally relevant in the community. The independent drug store differentiates itself from its deep-pocketed chain competitors by giving personalized service and creating a shopping environment that reminds customers of the "good old days." And of course, brands can build relevance by aligning with social issues or causes that matter to their customers. John Maxwell says "people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." Businesses of all sizes can use social responsibility as an organization-wide mindset for showing how much they care.

The goal is to create relevance, but never lose sight of who defines relevance. Your brand matters only if it matters to your customers.

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