KISS and tell: Testing the notion that the world’s strong brands are “simple” ones.

When you think of strong brands, the notion of their “simplicity” might seem a bit surprising. And yet this is the contention of Siegel+Gale, a leading brand strategy firm.

S+G has gathered together its research findings in an annual ranking it calls the World’s Simplest Brands.  These are the brands that best deliver on their promise with simple, clear, intuitive experiences.

Howard Belk, the company’s CEO and chief creative officer, explains it this way:

World’s Simplest Brands quantifies the substantial monetary value of investing in simplifying.  Now in its eighth year, our study reaffirms an increasing demand for transparent, direct, simple experiences that make peoples’ lives easier … the data prove that simplicity pays.”

In order to research brand simplicity, S+G queried ~15,000 people living in nine countries (the United States, India, China and Japan plus several European and Middle Eastern nations) to evaluate well-known brands and industries on their perceived simplicity.

Among the findings in its most recent annual evaluation, S+G reports that political, economic and cultural uncertainty coupled with shifting customer expectations are contributing to a heightened desire for simplicity.

The value of simplicity manifests itself in a number of ways; two key ones are:

  • A clear majority of people (~64%) are more likely to recommend a brand that delivers simple experiences.
  • A majority of the survey respondents (~55%) report that they are willing to pay more for simpler experiences.

S+G calculates that companies which fail to provide simple brand experiences forego nearly $100 billion in sales revenues collectively.

Based on its research, S+G ranks the Top 10 World’s Simplest Brands, as well as a Top 10 ranking for brands in the United States. Netflix, ALDI and Google top the worldwide rankings:

  • #1. Netflix
  • #2. ALDI
  • #3. Google
  • #4. Lidl
  • #5. Carrefour
  • #6. McDonald’s
  • #7. Trivago
  • #8. Spotify
  • #9. Uniqlo
  • #10. Subway

Explaining how several of the key brands made it to the pinnacle, S+G reported the following:

  • Netflix achieved top spot for the first time, thanks to its ease of experience allowing users to stream, pause and resume viewing without commercials or commitments.
  • ALDI scores well because they surpass big-box competitors with their clear communications, affordable prices, and premium private-label products.

U.S. Brand Simplicity Rankings are Different

Not surprisingly, S+G’s Top 10 list of the simplest brands looks different from a purely American perspective, with just four brands ranking in the Top 10 on both the USA and world lists. Here are the top-performing brands based on just American respondents:

  • #1. Lyft
  • #2. Spotify
  • #3. Amazon
  • #4. Costco Wholesale
  • #5. Subway
  • #6. Google
  • #7. McDonald’s
  • #8. KFC
  • #9. Southwest Airlines
  • #10 Zappos

What’s also interesting is what kinds of brands aren’t showing up on the Top Ten lists. News and social media industry participants aren’t ranking well – think platforms like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn and broadcast networks like CNN, NBC and ABC.

Also failing to show up are brands operating in industries that are steeped in complexity – fields like car rental services, insurance services and the worst one of all, TV/cable and other telecommunications brands.

The S+G report concludes by stating companies and brands “benefit greatly by keeping it simple for customers … or [they] suffer the consequences.” Moreover, companies that are operating in highly competitive marketplaces can cut through and rise to the top based on their brand simplicity.

More information about the Siegel+Gale research findings can be accessed here.

What about you?  Which brands would you classify as particularly noteworthy in their simplicity appeal? Please share your thoughtss with other readers.

When companies and brands take a stand on “issues,” here’s a quick way to weigh the potential implications.

In recent years, companies and brands have found it increasingly difficult to navigate the PR waters in a politically polarized environment.

On the one hand, companies want to be seen as progressive and inclusive organizations.  On the other, there is concern about coming off as too controversial.

The environment is about as toxic as it’s ever been. In the “good old days,” companies were able to merrily avoid controversy by supporting universally agreed-upon “benign” causes.  But whereas in the 1970s or 1980s, celebrating Christmas or financially supporting the city’s symphony orchestra or fine art gallery was never faulted, today the situation is different.

Acknowledging a religious holiday risks criticism about offending non-believers or shortchanging people of other spiritual faiths. And dishing out dollars in support of “high culture” invites barbs about the need to divert those resources to more “socially woke” initiatives and away from “high culture” pursuits that speak to only a small slice of the general public.

The recent controversy with Nike and its Colin Kaepernick-inspired “Just Do It” campaign is another case in point. It may be a bit of a coin toss, but the conventional view is that Nike’s campaign was, on balance, a modest victory for the company in that more of the public was favorably disposed to it than put off by it.  And after a momentary dip in Nike’s share price, the stock recovered and ended up higher.

Less successful was Target’s move to direct its employees to forego wishing customers “Merry Christmas,” and instead use the more generic “Happy Holidays” greeting. Target decided to be “out front” with this issue compared to competitors like Wal-Mart.  But after several years of gamely attempting to enforce this guideline in the wake of negative customer reaction and a barrage of bad press on the talk shows, Target finally relented, quietly reverting to the traditional Xmas greeting.

Simply put, in the current cultural environment there are more risk-and-reward issues for brands than ever — and what actually happens as a result is often unpredictable.

And yet … surveys show that many consumers want brands to take overt stands on hot-button issues of the day.  Sometimes brands are just as criticized for not taking a stand on those very same hot-button issues — such as whether to adopt gun-free zones in office and retail spaces or deciding what kind of gun-related merchandise will be prohibited from being sold in their stores.

To deal with this increasingly gnarly challenge, recently the marketing technology company 4C Insights developed a “decision tree” exercise that’s elegantly simple. It’s a great “back of the napkin” way for a company to weigh the potential upside and downside factors of taking a stand on a socio-political issue that could potentially impact product sales, corporate reputation, or the company’s share price.

Here’s the 4C Insights cheat-sheet:

To my mind, the 4C Insights decision tree can be applied equally well to weighing a potentially controversial social or cultural issue in addition to a political one.

Indeed, it should be a ready-reference for any PR and marketing professional to pull out whenever issues of this kind come up for discussion.

In this environment, my guess is that it would be referenced quite frequently.

For brand loyalty … follow the money.

When it comes to brand loyalty, are we mercenaries? Loyalists?  Cultists?

Or maybe we’re just lazy?

With major brands spending billions of dollars each year using various strategies to build and keep brand loyalty, these questions are important.

Recently-published consumer research by Maritz Motivation Solutions and Wise Marketer Group seeks to get to the nub of the issue.

Maritz/Wise surveyed nearly 2,100 American adults age 18 and over via online questionnaires and consumer research panels. The respondents were filtered to include purchase decision-makers or key influencers within one or more of six major consumer categories:

  • Airline travel
  • Banking services
  • Credit card services
  • Hotels/lodging
  • Restaurants
  • Specialty retails

The results of the research reveal that brand loyalty isn’t one monolithic mindset, but consumers tend to fall into one of four categories, as follows:

  • “Mercenaries” – Loyal to brands that pay them to be loyal: ~55% of respondents
  • “True loyalists” – Stay true to a brand because people connect with it above and beyond any explicit incentives to do so: ~30%
  • “Sloths” – Can’t be bothered to switch brands due to inertia: ~8%
  • “Cultists” – The brand represents their personal identity: ~7%

What the Maritz/Wise research also tells us is where people come down on brand loyalty attributes is based more on attitudinal characteristics than something that can be segmented easily based on conventional demographics.

In other words, brand loyalty characteristics aren’t driven by age, gender or income level; mercenaries and cultists are found in their expected proportions across the spectrum of loyalty.

In another finding, when it comes to the “transactional” nature of brand loyalty, the research discovered that the “art of the deal” is based on money.

Gift cards, cash-back and credits are overwhelmingly preferred forms of reward for brand loyalty – and these apply to everyone no matter where they may land on the brand loyalty spectrum.

So, the next time we hear the old saw that “money can’t buy love” … we all know that the truth is a bit more nuanced.

PR Practices: WOM Still Wins in the End

These days, there are more ways than ever to publicize a product or service so as to increase its popularity and its sales.

And yet … the type of thing most likely to convince someone to try a new product – or to change a brand – is a reference or endorsement from someone they know and trust.

Omnichannel marketing promotions firm YA conducted research in 2016 with ~1,000 American adults (age 18+) that quantifies what many have long suspected: ~85% of respondents reported that they are more likely to purchase a product or service if it is recommended by someone they know.

A similarly high percentage — 76% — reported that an endorsement from such a person would cause them to choose one brand over another.

Most important of all, ~38% of respondents reported that when researching product or services, a referral from a friend is the source of information they trust the most.  No other source comes close.

This means that online reviews, news reports and advertising – all of which have some impact – aren’t nearly as important as the opinions of friends, colleagues or family members.

… Even if those friends aren’t experts in the topic!

It boils down to this:  The level of trust between people has a greater bearing on purchase decisions because consumers value the opinion of people they know.

Likewise, the survey respondents exhibited a willingness to make referrals of products and services, with more than 90% reporting that they give referrals when they like a product. But a far lower percentage — ~22% — have actually participated in formal refer-a-friend programs.

This seems like it could be an opportunity for brands to create dedicated referral programs, wherein those who participate are rewarded for their involvement.

The key here is harnessing the referrers as “troops” in the campaign, so as to attract a larger share of referral business and where the opportunities are strongest — and tracking the results carefully, of course.

2016 says goodbye to some iconic American brands …

tcAs in every year, 2016 has seen the fall of famous brands; some are young upstarts that flamed out quickly, but others are venerable names that have been with us for decades.

Here are ten of the more notable casualties of the year – albeit a few of them still kicking but for all intents and purposes, going lights-out:

ap-logoA&P – This brand name goes back 150 years … but eventually even venerable A&P couldn’t survive in the cutthroat grocery market.  Actually, this brand’s been on life support for a while now, but has always managed to scrape by.  No longer.  Albertstons Companies – itself facing big competition in the grocery segment – has purchased the remaining 600 A&P outlets and will re-brand those it keeps open under its Acme brand name.  Nevertheless, at a century and a half it’s been quite a run – one that only a very few other brands can match.

american-appAmerican Apparel – When a once high-flying apparel company has its equally high-flying chief executive fending off salacious reports of secretly recorded sex videos – yes, they’re on the Internet – coupled with spiraling debt levels and plummeting sales, can Chapter 11 be far behind?  You already know the answer.

office-maxOffice Max – Sales at the big three U.S. office supply chains have struggled for a number of years, but Office Max was the one to fall victim first.  Its merger in 2013 with Office Depot began the brand’s slide, and now the final nail is in the coffin with the merger of Office Depot and Staples.  What’s the rationale for continuing to have three store brands under one company umbrella?  Answer:  No reason at all … which is why the weakest of the three brands is now becoming history.

ogOlympic Garden – In a development that some might characterize as divine retribution, the Las Vegas “adult” establishment colloquially known as “The OG” couldn’t handle its myriad legal battles even as it continued to attract big crowds.

radioshakRadioShack – OK, we still see RadioShack outlets in certain locations around the country – typically in small- to medium-sized markets.  But they’re co-branded locations with Sprint.  The reality is that this nearly 100-year-old brand is fading away; the only question is whether we’ll cease seeing the name in five years or just one or two.

searsSears – Another iconic brand name has been struggling mightily in the past decade or so, despite its merger with Kmart.  The company has lost more than $1 billion in each of the past three years.  Now it appears that the Sears name is the one that will disappear as its store locations continue to dwindle – nearly 250 in 2015 and close to another 100 this year.  At that rate, there’ll be none left before long.

simplyhiredSimplyHired – An international job search engine with upwards of 30 million active users that once sparred with the likes of Monster.com, ultimately this HR resource was unable to successfully compete in the space, shutting down in mid-year.

sportsSports Authority – A cautionary tale of what happens to a big retailer when it fails to keep its operations and product offerings fresh and appealing.  This retailer has been absorbed into Dick’s Sporting Goods, which has been far more nimble – and successful – in the “big box” sporting goods niche.

us-airways-logoUS Airways – We knew this had to be coming eventually; in 2013, this airlines’ merger with American Airlines was finalized.  Now that its operating systems are fully consolidated, one of the brand names was bound to disappear – and it’s US Airways.  Just like we all knew that Southwest Airlines would eventually consign the AirTran brand name to the dustbin, the same thing is happening with US Airways now.

vineVine – In October, Twitter shut down this video-sharing app so it could refocus on its (also struggling) core business.  Vine was definitely a flash-in-the-pan brand – barely a half-decade old.

So, now it’s time say a fond farewell to these brands. For a good many of them, the names may soon disappear, but they won’t be forgotten …

Do you have other 2016 brand casualties you’d add to the list?  Please share your choices with other readers here.

Social media: The biggest casualty of the U.S. presidential election?

smrrOnly one presidential candidate was a winner on election night. But there was more than one loser.

Sure, minor-party candidates lost. But I’d posit that social media itself was a loser as well.

It isn’t an exaggeration to contend that the 18-month long presidential campaign has had a corrosive effect on the social media landscape.

You could even say that the social media landscape became downright “anti-social,” thanks to the 2016 campaign.

For those who might have posted politically-oriented social media posts, they’ve risked receiving strident arguments, flamethrower responses and alienated friends.

Along those lines, a recent Pew Research study found that significant percentages of people have blocked individuals or adjusted their privacy settings on social media to minimize their exposure to all the vitriol.

It’s a far cry from social media’s promise in the “good old days” – not so long ago actually — when these platforms enabled people to stay in touch with friends and make acquaintances across the country and the world that they would never have been able to forge in the days before social platforms.

The easy ability to share information and interests only added to the appeal of social media, as people expanded their horizons along with their network of friends.

Companies and brands got in on the action, too. They found social media a welcoming place – particularly in the case of consumer brands where companies could ride the wave of social interaction and promote all sorts of products, services and worthwhile causes.

Advertising and promotion on social media naturally followed, with many companies allocating as much as 20% or more of their annual marketing budgets to those endeavors.

Until quite recently, that happy scenario seemed to be holding, with brands launching interesting, fun, quirky or cause-oriented shareable content in the hopes that they would “go viral” and pay dividends far in excess of the resource outlay.

What a difference 18 months makes. Suddenly, brands are spending only about half as much on social media marketing as they attempt to stay above the fray.  That also means staying far away from venturing into current topical discussions, lest their prickly digital audiences become instantly polarized.

Unfortunately, for brands who wish to avoid controversy arising from even the most seemingly innocuous of postings, social media is no longer a welcoming meadow of lush green grass and bright flowers. It’s closer to a war-torn field peppered with land mines just waiting to explode.  Hence the hasty retreat.

Unfortunately, just like trying to unscramble an egg, it’s very hard to see social media ever going back to what it used to be.

And for that state of affairs, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

Brands and “cause marketing”: How much is too much?

cmWhen brands conduct attitudinal studies of their customer base, the research often finds that people respond favorably to so-called “positive” or “progressive” causes.

The ALS “Ice-Bucket Challenge” is probably Exhibit A for the potency of such an initiative — including its fantastically successful viral component.

So it’s only natural that brand managers would think in terms of tying their brands to high-profile events such as Earth Day or popular health causes such as efforts to cure cancer or heart disease.

Perhaps the activity is doing a highly publicized community initiative … hosting a well-publicized 5K run or similar event … or donating funds for the cause in a new and attention-grabbing way.

But here’s the rub: With so many national brands doing precisely these sorts of things, it’s become something of an echo chamber.  What once was fresh and novel now seems decidedly ho-hum.

Besides, with so much breathless “cause activity” happening, it’s little wonder that many consumers are seeing through all the hype and attaching near-zero attribution to the brands involved.

The situation is even more problematic when there’s little or no connection between the brand’s products or services and the cause being supported.  The problem is, when brands start vying for attention — especially allying with causes that have nothing at all to do with their core business — “authenticity” goes out the window.

In the process, the brands may telegraph something even worse than irrelevancy; they look desperate for attention.

Of course, all of this evidence doesn’t mean that major brands aren’t continuing to try to attach themselves to the positive vibes of social action. Some recent examples are these:

More problematic than these campaigns was the Starbucks initiative last year in which its baristas were encouraged to start conversations about race relations, interacting with customers waiting in line for their espressos and muffins.

Let’s just say that the idea looked better on paper compared to how it panned out in real life — with more than a few Starbucks customers finding the initiative awkward, intrusive and off-putting (and taking to Twitter to vent their feelings).

Thinking about the good and the not-so-good of “cause marketing,” it appears that the more successful of these initiatives are ones which hew more closely to a brand’s own essence.

Patagonia is a good example of this. Its mission has always been to design and manufacture quality products in an environmentally responsible way, and it promotes proper stewardship of the land and of material possessions through many initiatives that just “feel right” for this particular brand.

And in the realm of apparel and cosmetics, a whole bevy of brands have jumped into conversations about “positive self-image.” While to some people it may seem self-serving for brands like Dove® soap, American Eagle lingerie and Lane Bryant plus-size apparel to become active in such causes, one can also see the logical connection between the products these brands sell and the themes they are spotlighting in these campaigns.

Authenticity and genuineness: Not only are they the hallmark of successful brands, they’re the acid test for successfully grabbing a share of the “social good” pie.  Who’s doing it right … and who’s missing the mark?  Let us know your nominations.