Everyone has a story like this: “I ran into so-and-so for the first time in 10 years. Wow. Has he ever changed! Looks fantastic. Very successful. He has really made it.”
As I pointed out in the last column, that’s elevation. Some brands elevate over time as well.
The question is not ‘can it be done?’ The question is ‘how did they do it?’ There are some excellent take-aways, which you can use to elevate your brand, if you pull the apart the examples of Volvo, Lee Valley, Dickies, and TSC Stores.
Here are some common themes to their brand elevation stories:
1. Start with a focus on quality
Two years ago we completed a large study of purchase decision makers at small and medium-sized businesses. One question we asked was ‘how do you define quality?’ In the examples above, I’m talking about two elements of quality: craftsmanship and value-for-price. Each of the brands that eventually elevated, just like that kid from your high school, focused heavily on very well-crafted products or services in their earlier days.
No one would ever say Volvo used to produce a shoddy car. Or that Dickies’ jeans wore out quickly. In fact, most would tell you the products or services noted were over-engineered, or solid, or hearty. And the prices charged or associated with the brands were not out of line with value derived from those products or services.
Throughout the elevations, the focus on quality remained. Each brand has a reputation for robust quality. What is remarkable in each instance is the price premium now charged. The brands have steadily increased price, in some cases to near-premium, at a pace outstripping the increase in quality and service.
If you want to elevate your own brand, and you have any questions about your own product or service quality, this would be the place to start. If you have a lot of confidence in your quality – as measured by your reputation with your customers, not by your own quality assurance metrics – you are in good shape to start a directed brand elevation.
2. Don’t forget practicality
Each of the profiled brands also had its roots in practicality. Lee Valley didn’t make slick-looking tools, it made useful tools. TSC Stores sold rakes and rope, not designer saddles. And they still do. It is part of their heritage, and everyone associates the brands with this trait.
There seems to be a stickiness rooted in practicality that’s needed to achieve a sustainable brand elevation. Tab is a brand that was popular in the early 1980s, all but died, and came back with a vengeance about two years ago, re-positioned as an energy drink for women (and nicely re-branded). But I’m not sure where this brand is now. The quality was always there but perhaps not a heritage of practicality.
To elevate your brand, a concentration on communicating a heritage of practical application or service is a step you need to start taking right now (if it’s not already part of your branded value proposition). And this will take time.
3. The kitsch factor
A final common theme for the elevated brands we’ve discussed is kitsch, in some cases bordering on campy. Volvos were so well known as a college professor’s car, movies would reinforce the notion by ensuring these characters drove a used Volvo wagon. Some of Lee Valley’s marketing and communications pieces were, and are, so timeless, they are now retro cool.
The point is that while each of these brands takes the business of what they make and do seriously, they don’t take themselves so seriously as to be offended when others take a light-hearted swipe at them.
Two brands I think of that really embrace kitsch, coupled with their well-known quality and practicality, are Electrolux (yet another example of a brand that has elevated) and Steam Whistle (which is not all that old, but appears so because of some very clever branding and positioning).
Having a little fun with your own brand, and acting somewhat self-deprecating in a genuine manner, are also key to transcending the too-cool-for-school brands that will eventually fade away – and achieving an elevated status.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Mark Healy, P.Eng, MBA, is a partner at Satov Consultants – a management consultancy with practice areas in corporate strategy, customer strategy and operations strategy. Mark’s focus areas inside the customer strategy practice include consumer insights, customer experience, innovation and go-to-market strategy. He is a regular speaker and media contributor on topics ranging from marketing to strategy, in telecom, retail and other sectors. Mark is known as much for his penchant for loud socks and a healthy NFL football obsession as he is for his commitment to Ivey and recent Ivey grads. He currently serves as chair of the Ivey Alumni Association board of directors. Mark lives with his wife Charlotte and their bulldog McDuff in Toronto.