Brand survival and profitability is more and more reliant upon leveraging customer values. Here Stacy Baker outlines the top tips that brand builders can use to strengthen loyalty, manage hard times and keep their names to the fore.

• Keep your message consistent but fresh
Sounds tough - and it can be - but it's really one of the keys to ensuring shoppers buy your product.

At the heart of a strong brand message is staying really close to your customers, says Wendy Liebmann, president of WSL Strategic Retail in New York. "You have to be able to not only think you know what they're thinking, but also continually touching their hearts and minds in order to understand intimately how their lives are evolving, as well as how that impacts their needs," she says.

So how do you keep a brand consistent? First you must be able to article - and leverage - your brand's equity, according to Robert Passikoff, founder and president of Brand Keys in New York.

What does your label have that your competitor's doesn't? What is it about your brand that speaks to consumers? "Determine what dimensions your brand possesses that differentiate it in some way from other products designed to meet the same consumer needs," he recommends. "The differences can be rational or more emotional, but they have to be there."

• Move beyond demographics
Wooing customers is about more than determining who is in the right age group, income bracket and geographic location; it's also about recognising and respecting customers' core values - what they believe in, what's important in their worlds, what they desire - according to Passikoff.

He notes that most apparel manufacturers have little knowledge of their customers beyond pure demographics because that particular mindset or strategy was implemented in another era when companies didn't take the customer into account.

"That worked in 1957, and maybe even 1980, but not anymore," he says. "You need to be able to drill down much deeper than that to market successfully. When you understand your customers and their values you are able to design and execute brand and marketing strategies and tactics in ways that resonate with the target audience." And when your brand resonates, it sells - regardless of challenging times.

According to a recent survey of 7500 US adults, the 2003 Brand Keys Fashion Index, the strongest apparel brands are Ralph Lauren, Nike, Armani, Donna Karen, Chanel, Brooks Brothers, J Crew, LL Bean, and Burberry. Why? These brands not only know their customers but also create a sense of need and value in their lives.

"They are the ones actually managing their brands beyond nicely shot fashion photographs," Passikoff says. "Apparel branding must be something more than pretty fashion photography."

• Don't stop changing
Once you're brand is hot, it's natural to assume it will always be hot, right? Not necessarily. Unfortunately because our lives move at such a rapid pace, success today doesn't guarantee success tomorrow. In fact, it's quite unlikely. You can, however, keep your brand in favour by changing at the same speed as your customers and their lives.

"Unless you sustain an intimate conversation it's easy to get off track, regardless of how successful your brand is," says Liebmann. "You've got to look at research, pop culture, trends, but also observe your customers in an anecdotal way by observing them and listening to how they talk about their lives."

Sometimes the best information you get from people is when you're standing in aisles or by a register hearing them chat with a friend about why they did or didn't buy a certain product - the fit, the style, the price, the service.

And while it's easy for successful brands to get bogged down in running the business (piles of printouts and spreadsheets, loads of e-mails), Liebmann says she subscribes to the belief that the smartest brands adhere to the principal that no business is done entirely in the office.

• Build loyalty
Consumer trust and loyalty are by-products of a brand with value. "The key to keeping today's consumer loyal to your brand is to make sure that it meets or exceeds customer expectations," Passikoff says.

"Most apparel brands don't do that. Most don't have any idea that they need to do that, but not doing so will come back to haunt them." Start by ensuring that what your brand stands for is not only what is valued by your consumers, but it also creates the feeling or perception of valuing consumers as well.

"A more profit-driven, 21st century approach would expand upon what apparel brands have been doing for the past 50 years: they would recognise that target audience is actively seeing brand dimensions that exceed their perception of the 'ideal,'" he says.

This "ideal" is the standard by which consumers measure all products within a category, including what criteria or product attributes make them choose brand A over brand B.

The comparison between brands follows no particular set course, ie it can be logical or based purely on emotion, it can be spoken or unspoken, and a consumer may or may not be able to articulate its charm. The key to creating value then will be to capitalise and differentiate yourself on one or more of these distinguishing factors.

"Once you know what consumers expect from your category, it's just a matter of creating a "creative shell" that keeps your equities looking fresh," he says. "Too many apparel brands 'reverse engineer' and start with an image that they then have to squeeze into the consumer's conception of the 'ideal,' which doesn't work very well."

• Create relevance and innovation
Beyond value, create relevance, the idea that the brand is useful and necessary in their lives because it understands their needs. Innovation is also key - shoppers need to believe that what you're offering is current and innovative rather than keep them mired in sameness or even pushing them back in terms of style, fit, quality, price and more.

"Target does well with its 'expect more, pay less' strategy that shows that good design shouldn't be expensive," says Liebmann. "The retailer says, 'We'll commit to that promise in everything from fashion to accessories all the time,' which makes you keep looking to see what else they have."

She also points to Starbucks which has convinced the world that a premium-priced coffee is in fact an affordable luxury, rather than overpriced java. It continues to make the brand relevant by offering new and exciting promotions - giving consumers coupons for a free customised coffee of their choice, for example - unparalleled service, inviting surroundings, which create the feeling that Starbucks is an essential experience not just a caffeinated beverage. That keeps people interested and intrigued.

• Expand smartly
The key here is to stay ahead of your competition, as well as keeping tabs on the changing face of consumers, which gives you the appearance of being the category leader, which Passikoff believes is key particularly for an apparel brand. "You still have to make sure that your brand can sustain the marketing effort, ie, they'll actually believe what you plan to offer the consumer/say about yourself."

10 commandments of a successful brand strategy

1: Know and respect your consumer
2: Understand them beyond their demographics
3: Make sure your brand not only stands for something that the customer values, but it also makes them feel valued
4: Understand what really drives your category
5: Know what consumers really expect from your category
6: Stay ahead of the competition in delivering what customers want
7: Manage your brand to meet or exceed customer expectations
8: Know what customers are willing to believe about you
9: Recognise that a marketing strategy is not necessarily a brand strategy - and that it's about something more than pretty fashion photography
10: Realise that pricing, distribution and quality are now the price-of-entry - if you don't have those, don't play the game

Source: Robert Passikoff, president, Brand Keys, New York

How will you know it's time? Experts recommend looking for decreased levels of profitability with your current brand portfolio. "Make sure that you know the difference between a marketing strategy and a brand strategy," he advises. "Knowing that the market potential for tuxedos, for example, does you little good if your brand is Gap."

Others argue there's always an opportunity for expansion as long as it's consistent with your strategy and messaging. At the very least, having the mindset of constant innovation and extension will keep you open to opportunities, particularly in an era where great ideas are conceived, then knocked off at the speed of light.

"You must build a brand plan that allows you to continuously stay ahead," says Liebmann. "That's not a yearly meeting or initiative, but rather a daily process. It's part of a company's culture and extends throughout the organisation."

Key to expanding smartly is also doing so without diluting the brand or diminishing its cachet. This also means you have an intimate understanding of how your customers' lives have evolved as well as where their lifestyles are moving and how your brand will contribute to the total picture. This is a mixture of intuition and science, experience and elbow grease.

Ralph Lauren is a good example of a brand that's expanded based on what its consumers' needed. "Ralph Lauren has created a brand that's both aspirational and available at numerous price points. As consumers looked to more casual work clothes the brand offered its Polo sport line - the company continued to take the core of the brand and translate into more relaxed, casual and affordable clothing that again was at high end of the segments they were in," she says.

"And the brand was still relevant for people with little or a lot of money. If you can't afford the Purple label you can still buy Ralph Lauren Ts, fragrance or bedding." Its success stemmed from the fact that it stayed close to the changing lifestyles that people led and then created the newness to satisfy that.

"Fashion is involved in many categories, such as home," she adds. "Fashion isn't holistic; it's not just what's on the body but it's also how you present yourself in your home."

This expanded definition of fashion means that extension into lifestyle offerings is a natural fit for many apparel brands and creates the opportunity to develop more lines without threatening the core brand or its cachet.

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