greed is good

May 25, 2017

Which brand do you desire most? It is a question that we have asked people time and again. There are some suggestions that come up fairly consistently, such as Apple, sports brands such as Adidas and Nike, car brands such as Audi and Porsche, and fashion brands such as Prada and Levi’s, and also some unique ones—for example, one person told us about his experience of a patisserie in Lisbon, Portugal. What are as interesting as the choices though are the explanations—linkages back to family and childhood, the sensuality of experience, and the way that brand reflects who you are and who you would like to become. Perhaps not surprisingly, the language people use is often emotional. For some, there is a sense of aspiration but little fantasy for the unattainable. This research led us to wonder whether desire for a brand (not a ‘need’ or a ‘want’ as is often used in marketing, nor ‘love’ which is more enduring) was important and could it be nurtured and managed by brand owners?

964To validate our ideas about brand desire, we drew on an attitudinal study of some 8,000 consumers that has been repeated regularly since 2010. This work demonstrates that the value of a brand is built on two pillars: brand pressure which is concerned with awareness of a brand and its availability; and brand desire which is concerned with performance, personality, and emotional connectivity. Not all brands score high on these measures—some are good at pressure but weak in terms of desire and some are niche players (through strategic choice or lack of resources) that are strong on desire but weak on pressure. Leading brands though (what we call ‘desire leaders’) excel at both pressure and desire.

An interesting illustration of a desire leader is Coca-Cola. It might seem an obvious choice, but what Coca-Cola observed was while it is strong on brand pressure, there is a constant need to boost brand desire. To retain its position as a desire leader, the brand has been working to better align the design of its sub-brands such as Coke Zero and Diet Coke with the core brand and has introduced a new, more emotional campaign around the theme of ‘taste the feeling’. Similarly, fashion retail brand Zara is strong on brand pressure, due to its extensive network of stores and a business model that focuses on cost leadership and attractive prices. Yet, Zara has also invested in generating brand desire. Its clothes draw on the same inspirations as luxury brands, its stores are located in prime retail locations in major cities, and the interiors are designed to convey a sense of exclusivity.

how to build a desirable brand
Desire leaders such as Zara and Coca-Cola have conscious strategies to build brand desire. They recognize that consumers like both the certainty of the familiar and the surprise of the new, and accordingly they use the framework of their brands to provide continuity while at the same time delivering engaging experiences. This requires insights into consumer beliefs and behavior, but it also requires a structured approach to create and then maintain desire. By analyzing the way desirable brands do this, we developed a model companies can use to make their brands desire leaders.
At the core of desirable brands are principles that are deeper than purpose and values, and represent the enduring ideas that guide the organization over time— often against the grain. Principles are not static, but neither do they flip-flop at the whim of managers; are enduring ideas that come from the organization’s sense of being; are important for the organization because they provide direction and also matter for consumers. Principles help generate both clarity as to what a brand stands for and a sense of authenticity that makes it desirable.

The renaissance of Danish toy company LEGO is an apt illustration of this. Twenty years ago, to combat the emergence of online games, LEGO moved away from its core product of plastic bricks and the idea of a system of play, to embrace a variety of different forms of toys and experiences. With some exceptions, most of these innovations were ineffective and in 2004, the company posted its third annual loss in five years. Enter a new CEO—Jørgen Vig Knudstorp—and the renewal of its traditional principles based around the brick. Peripheral products were sold off and joint ventured, and the company became more focused. When LEGO was aiming for scale, it was unsuccessful but when it concentrated on being true to its principles and providing its mostly young consumers with an engaging experience through relevant brand-aligned innovation, it inadvertently became big. In 2014, LEGO emerged as the largest toy company in the world, with margins of over 30%.

The other drivers of brand desire all feed from principles. Most of the brands we feature (except the really high-end luxury ones, whose appeal lies in their rarity) aim to be accessible to people and some even go further and encourage the active participation of consumers and other audiences. This makes people feel closer to the brand and helps ensure it remains relevant and appealing. However, for participation to work, companies need cultures that are built on trust and encourage employee participation. Leaders need to ensure that employees understand the principles of the organization but then set them free to deliver compelling and authentic experiences. For example, hotel chain Ritz Carlton has a compelling brand story that it summarizes in what it calls its Gold Standards. These standards are visible in every one of its hotels. However, what really sets Ritz Carlton apart is that employees are committed to the standards and realize them in every interaction they have with customers.

A brand that has used the drivers to become highly desirable is Nespresso. Since its launch in 2000, it has had a focused positioning as a luxury brand. This idea of coffee as luxury is not immediately obvious but drinking good coffee can feel like an indulgence. Internally, Nespresso described the brand as the Louis Vuitton of coffee—an ambitious idea, but one that gave them a clear direction. The idea helped them decide how to manage the brand experience through its different touchpoints, to borrow the codes and language of luxury brands (for example, calling their limited edition varieties Grand Crus) and to pay attention to the small details of design. It also meant that like luxury brands, Nespresso would have to think beyond simply selling the capsules and the machines (which were expensive) to ritualizing the experience by creating a sensual, boutique-style environment.

At Nespresso, there is constant innovation in terms of product and delivery but it occurs within the framework of the brand. It also brings its customers into the fold by inviting them to join the Nespresso Club—indeed it was the club that recommended actor George Clooney as the face and voice of the brand. The brand has clear, fixed principles, but it also innovates continuously; it encourages participation, but it also has a clear idea of what it wants to achieve; it creates a luxurious brand experience, but it also makes the brand open and accessible to all. Sometimes, brands seem to struggle to balance these competing needs, but Nespresso shows that when they are well managed they can create and sustain brand desire.