Much has been written about the decline of brands in this age of information and consumer empowerment. In this article in The New Yorker, James Surowiecki persuasively questions some commonly held — and rarely questioned — beliefs about the value of brands. In a time when consumers have the ability to quickly look up and compare virtually any product or service, what is the value of brands in markets like the green industry?
Without question, instant access to information and the ability to share it has changed the game in every market. If the traditional role of brands as proxies for quality or service is no longer valid, as the author argues, what is the role of a brand? And, more specifically, what’s the role of brands in the green industry?
"It’s a truism of business-book thinking that a company’s brand is its 'most important asset,' more valuable than technology or patents or manufacturing prowess. But brands have never been more fragile. The reason is simple: consumers are supremely well informed and far more likely to investigate the real value of products than to rely on logos."
— James Surowiecki
If you’ve attended an industry trade show, you know many significant product and service brands are actively supported for both professional and consumer audiences. But the question remains, what value do these brands provide the customer — or for that matter, the distribution channel?
In his article, Surowiecki argues the main value of a strong brand is the ability to command a premium price. And while price and margin protection is important, I believe strong brands create something more enduring, something special that transcends the purchase: they’re building a bond.
These bonds, or connections, are built on rational and emotional levels that not only ensure ongoing sales, but they also inoculate brands to a degree from unforeseen product issues such as product failure or poor service. In fact, strong brand connections can even overcome what might seem like a rational decision. Ask an average marketing executive or product manager in the green industry who has created conversion programs targeting competitive product users through discounted pricing. Many landscape and golf maintenance professionals might not use competitive brands even if they were completely free. Not rational, but true.
Clearly, deep connections are central to the role of brands today. And as we all know, some brands develop those bonds better than others. Many of us have seen landscape contractors showing off tattoos featuring the brand of irrigation products they install or the mower they use. They personally identify with these brands.
It takes time and effort along with consistent positive customer experiences to create this type of bond, or as we like to call it: Real Connection™. The following four phases illustrate a hierarchy of sorts for brand connection:
Green industry brands relying on innovative products alone can be successful, but they are not as likely to reap the benefits of deep loyalty and advocacy unless they actively move their customers up this hierarchy of shared beliefs and values.
While we’re continually challenged to evaluate beliefs and perspectives, the changing digital landscape doesn’t alter the value of brands — it changes how much harder brands need to work in order to maintain and increase that value.