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Building a Strong Brand Image

Aug 10, 2023
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What do a beauty brand, an upscale outdoor brand, a beverage brand and a sportswear brand have in common? They’ve all driven brand equity and business value through concerted, long-term efforts to craft robust, authentic brand images and personalities that resonate with the companies’ target customers.

This post introduces some concepts presented in the Advanced Brand Management course taught by Adjunct Instructor Ryan Reis in the IMC Professional program at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. It discusses how Dove, Patagonia, Coca-Cola and Nike have built company value through brand activations that are authentic, purposeful and culturally relevant.

A Working Definition of Brand Image

Brand image is consumer perception of a particular brand, built from interactions with it, how it conducts itself in the world, and what others say about it. Importantly, brand image is fluid and shaped by myriad forces within and outside the brand's control.

Whether positive or negative, brand image influences consumers' perception and decision-making regarding purchases.

What is Brand Authenticity?

Brand authenticity refers to how truthful, genuine and relevant a brand appears to its audience. While it can be challenging to measure directly, brand authenticity has real business consequences.

Authenticity Elevates Brand Reputation

Brand activations aligned with the brand promise foster consumer trust, elevating the brand's reputation.

Coca-Cola's long-running "Share a Coke" campaign, which drove a 2% global increase in Coke sales, was closely aligned with the company's purpose, "To refresh the world and make a difference." 1, 2

Authenticity Drives Increased Customer Engagement and Loyalty

When consumers see a brand as authentic and reliable, they're more likely to interact, share experiences and remain loyal. Researchers have found that more than half of consumers would pay more to do business with a brand they perceive as authentic, and more than 90% would recommend it to others.3

Patagonia's dedication to environmental stewardship, expressed repeatedly over its 50-year history, has created a loyal customer base of nature lovers and adventurers.

Authenticity Increases Differentiation

An authentic brand can stand out in a saturated market, creating unique advantages and associations with its identity.

Nike's swoosh logo and "Just Do It" tagline are instantly recognizable and aligned with its mission statement: "To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world. If you have a body, you are an athlete.”

Brand Image and Brand Marketing

Because a strong brand can do so much to elevate profitability, and because brands are fluid and vulnerable to external forces, companies put a lot of effort into brand marketing.

Brand marketing and product advertising are not the same. While product advertising focuses on specific features, benefits and promotional offerings, brand marketing works to shape brand perception and create a strong brand image.

A Marketing Week case study on the Dove "Real Beauty" campaign found that every dollar the company spent on brand marketing delivered $4.42 in incremental revenue. The campaign helped the Dove master brand attain a global valuation of more than $6.4 billion in 20234, 5 while running in parallel with product advertisements.

How to Build a Strong Brand Image

In the Advanced Brand Management course, branding expert Reis asserts that the four cornerstones of a strong brand image are authenticity, alignment, action and adjustment.

Authenticity and Mission

Your organization's mission, vision and values are the starting point for creating an authentic brand. They should shape your brand personality and energize your marketing, customers and employees. As Reis says, "Ensure that you know why the brand exists beyond making money."

Alignment for Brand Relevance

Reis recommends that companies "find causes that help society and align with brand purpose" to create successful brand activations. Citing the book "Grow" by former Procter & Gamble Global Marketing Officer Jim Stengel, Reis notes that the 50 highest-performing businesses, which grew three times faster than their competitors, are all driven by what Stengel calls "brand ideals."

Dove's success, noted above, aligns the brand vision that "beauty should be a source of confidence, and not anxiety" with initiatives to bolster self-esteem for women and girls.6

Action Speaks Louder Than Words

Authenticity is rooted in action. As Reis says, "Rally the team. Stop talking and start acting." If you claim to be environmentally responsible, you must act to protect the environment.

Patagonia is a good example of a company that acts authentically in support of its values. Some of the company's many environmentally conscious innovations include developing organic alternatives for constructing wetsuits, starting the "Worn Wear" platform for reselling used clothing, and deeding the privately held company's stock to a non-profit trust dedicated to "fighting the environment crisis and defending nature."7

Adjustment: Finding Sustainability

The final pillar of Reis's framework for creating an authentically strong brand identity is that "beneficial actions must also build the business to have staying power."

Each of the four companies highlighted here has found a way to bolster their profitability while supporting their mission. Patagonia's CEO says the non-profit status has sharpened focus on revenue, which has grown to about $1.5 billion annually.8

Nike's "Dream Crazy" campaign featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick drew the ire of then-president Donald Trump and generated a fierce debate in traditional and social media. Controversial though it may have been, the campaign grew the brand's sales by 31%, garnered $163 million in earned media, and added $6 billion to the brand value.9

Brand Mistakes Can Be Costly

Other brands have made costly mistakes when attempting to address social issues with their activations. In April 2023, for example, Bud Light alienated both conservatives and members of the LGBTQ+ community. The brand had provided transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney, who has millions of followers on TikTok and Instagram, a personalized beer can depicting her image. After the video she posted about it drew a violent reaction from conservatives, the brand quickly disavowed the activation, annoying members of the LGBTQ+ community. The uproar further weakened the slumping brand, whose revenues in early June were down 24.4% year over year.10

How to Create Authentic Brand Activations

Creating successful brand activations requires a deep understanding of the brand's values and personality and a keen awareness of what matters to your customers, employees and the general consumer. By aligning your brand's core values with the values of these stakeholders, you can build powerful activations that resonate, engage and create lasting relationships. Authenticity is vital in this process.

Begin by Asking the Right Questions

Reis suggests you ask consumers what's important to them and how that aligns with what your brand does. Ask customers why they do business with the brand and employees what makes them proud to work for the brand.

There are many ways to gather stakeholder insights that will help strengthen your brand image, including surveys, focus groups and social listening. You may also find insights in customer service reports and employee suggestions. Studying available data on sales and the wider business and economic context is also essential for sharpening your understanding of the situation.

The Sprout Social 2022 social media trends report states, "Knowing and embracing your audience’s personal values—where it makes sense—has a clear tie to revenue. Company alignment with personal values is 74% more important to consumers than it was in 2021."11

Use Authentic Storytelling and Content

Andy Kirk, a design strategist in the United Kingdom, believes "storytelling is the backbone of ensuring a message is relevant." He says the types of stories brands should tell include:

  • "Big picture stuff" that sets the brand in context and explains why it's relevant
  • "Today's big issues," how they affect the brand and what you intend to do about them
  • "An ongoing narrative" that describes what the brand is doing12

Work with UGC and Authentic Influencers

User-generated content (UGC) and authentic influencers play a significant role in shaping a brand's identity. By leveraging genuine content created by real users and influencers who align with your brand's values, you can add authenticity to your brand image that cannot be replicated with traditional advertising.

Whether through reviews, social media posts, blog articles or photos, UGC provides deeper insight into how customers perceive your brand. It acts as social proof, giving potential customers confidence in your products or services.

Recent research has shown that 84% of millennials distrust traditional advertising. Prioritizing UGC in your marketing strategy builds trust and strengthens your brand identity by aligning it with the customers' voice.13

Like UGC, influencers who genuinely connect with your brand are essential for creating authentic activations. Partnering with these influencers can help you reach and engage with a broader audience.

Strive for Consistency and Transparency

“Humans are pattern-seeking animals. As such, they expect a level of consistency and dependability from the brands they support.”13 Sending mixed messages creates confusion, weakens brand perceptions, and as Bud Light found out, can cause serious harm to the brand. Conversely, consistency of communications and actions over extended periods has helped brands including Patagonia, Coca-Cola, Dove and Nike drive growth and profitability.

Transparency about business practices and their impact on people and the environment is vital to building consumer trust. Research shows 73% of consumers are willing to pay a premium for completely transparent brands and that 94% are likely to be loyal to such a brand.3

Cultural Relevance Is Not Optional

Global and national events, including the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, the Black Lives Matter movement and the January 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol, have prompted consumers to scrutinize brands for alignment with their concerns.

As Reis notes, “no comment" is increasingly not an option. According to the Kantar Group, millennials are leading the call for brands to play more meaningful roles in their lives beyond just their product or service.” 14

Purpose-Driven Marketing Builds Brands for the Future

Brand activations that are closely linked to the brand’s mission and respond with conviction to critical current events can help your company navigate increasing global challenges.

As the four brands highlighted in this post illustrate, your brand can find relevance on a continuum ranging from personal to social to environmental concerns. The keys are to listen to your stakeholders and act with consistency and conviction.

Building Brand Relevance and Value

  • Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” campaign fostered personal connection and delight with a long-running global campaign
  • Dove’s “Real Beauty” initiative focused on empowering women and girls while building the value of the master brand and its products
  • Nike’s “Dream Crazy” campaign took a stand on racial justice and the company weathered a backlash to find increased customer loyalty and brand value
  • Patagonia’s steadfast focus on environmental responsibility has driven revenue growth and customer loyalty, allowing it to create brand extensions, including food and beverage products

Build Your Future as a Marketing Leader with Medill

Start building your future as a marketing leader with the Medill IMC Professional program. Rooted in the expert knowledge of Medill's renowned faculty, the program provides a deep dive into the intricacies of brand perception, brand voice and brand activation. You'll gain hands-on experience leveraging customer insights, creating authentic brand narratives, and effectively activating brands. Embark on a journey that reshapes your understanding of brand perception and aids in crafting compelling brand narratives. Speak with an admissions outreach advisor to learn more, or start your application today.