When one thinks of big brands such as IBM, Nike, Starbucks or FedEx, one knows the quality of services and products is guaranteed and that there will always be something novel to surprise customers.
This is the power of brand-building and corporate innovation that helps strengthen the value of products, said Shelly Lazarus, chairwoman and chief executive officer with Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide.
Lazarus made the remark during a recent speech in Taipei, under the topic "Where Brands and Innovation Meet." She was in town at the invitation of the Chinese-language business magazine Commonwealth.
In highly competitive markets, enhanced quality, functionality and features are no longer critical factors swaying consumers purchasing decisions, Lazarus said.
"Companies must innovate to survive, and furthermore, link product innovation to the brand," she stressed.
In a reciprocal way, a strong brand will feed into innovation and is valuable because a solid brand delivers a message of "consistent quality" and secures customer trust. This is evident in the fact that consumers do not buy products, even innovative or ground-breaking products, from companies they don't know or trust, she said.
"For example, when I use Trend Micro's products, I don't need to read the technical specifications to know that Trend Micro offers state-of-the-art virus detection," Lazarus noted, "The brand is all I need to know. I trust the brand. I trust that it will do what it says it will do."
But products alone do not represent a brand.
Branding is a concept beyond product manufacturing that demonstrates the relationship between products and users, Lazarus said, citing four examples to manifest how innovation can touch consumers' emotional core.
Most consumers perceive Nike as an icon of human endeavor and Motorola as a technology innovator which presents a kind of aesthetic lifestyle. Kodak positions itself as a company that can capture our emotions and memories, while Huggies links its image with happy babies and the mother who loves them, instead of trumpeting how many layers the diapers are made of, Lazarus said.
As shown in their TV commercials, these companies convey an idea that connects with consumers, which constitutes the core of the brand, she added.
Apple, generally deemed to be the most innovative brand in the US, has moved beyond the world of computers to that of entertainment with the invention of the iPod portable music player. That has pushed the envelope in music downloading and has successfully turned its icon into one of the world's most recognizable symbols.
But with that all said, how can a powerful brand actually be built?
Debunking a common myth held by corporate executives, Lazarus stressed that branding involves a lot more than advertising. While ad campaigns are important, branding involves the total consumer experience, including promotions, special events, salespeople, service and sponsorship.
Many companies have dipped into their pockets for expensive ad placements, but the real service or product quality cannot match the image they want to create.
"Brand is not what you say. Brand is something that consumers build, like birds building nests."
Starbucks serves as a great example, she said. The famous coffee chain has expanded into more than 9,000 outlets around the world, but it has no media ads.
The coffee giant has utilized consumers' store experience as its best marketing strategy. People know what they'll get in its outlets all over the world, from the decor, music, chairs and sofas, to drinks and the overall "feel" of a store.
Now it has even placed kiosks inside some stores, allowing customers to make customized CDs or download music, which shows its strong commitment to offer novel services beyond its core business, Lazarus said.
But what consumers want is not something that all companies know, Lazarus noted. Companies should think ahead about their potential buyers, and get to know what they dream about, what they worry about, what will make them smile and what will make them feel smarter.
This is especially true in the process of adjusting marketing strategies to suit local circumstances, when advertising products in international markets.
With an MBA in marketing from Columbia University, Lazarus, 57, joined the international advertising and marketing company over 30 years ago. Named the company's CEO in 1996 and chairwoman in 1997, Lazarus has been listed in Fortune magazine's annual ranking of the 50 Most Powerful Women in American Business since the first such ranking in 1998.
During her speech, she also tossed a question to a packed audience, who all looked bemused by the challenge.
"When advertising Dove shampoo internationally, we had local users do testimonials on TV. But how are you going to promote the brand in a place where hair cannot be shown?" she asked.
As shown on TV commercials, a smiling Islamic woman wearing hijab in Malaysia tells a camera how her husband and kids love to touch her soft and smooth hair after she uses the products. By using local methods to describe beauty, Dove can still touch hearts in different markets, she said.
Brand-building takes times and money. "Imagine what kind of outcome you want to happen and who you try to reach before you work to build the brand through media advertising," Lazarus suggested.
"Then there is no reason why local brands cannot become international brands," she said.