A product is quickly outdated… but a brand is timeless. Thus, it takes years of hard work for a product to metamorphose into a brand and strong brands are built on intangible attributes, ones that emotionally connect with consumers. Most marketers follow a series of steps to build strong brands to move up and grab maximum consumer mind space, especially when the market is nothing short of a war between brands. Brands position on differentiated factors or USP, but it is imperative for them to convert these unique features into more meaningful benefits. And this process is termed as ‘brand laddering’- where brands progress from offering functional benefits to more abstract values and constantly seeking reconciliation with consumer need and brand value.
Professor Kevin Lane Keller, author of ‘Strategic Brand Management’, explains that over a period of time, brands undergo colossal image makeover or in simple terms their projected utility changes with time. Brands ladder up three symbolic segments: attributes, functional benefits and emotional benefits. To explain further, laddering involves the change in marketing efforts from focusing on brands to focusing on consumer. At the lower rung of the ladder, the effort is to make the customer familiar with unique features of the brand, while at the top, the emphasis is on the consumer – what she derives out of the brand.
Sharad Sarin, Professor of Marketing, XLRI says that there are two sides to every product – functional and emotional. Latter helps in building a relationship with the consumer. A successful example of such relationship building would be Parle G biscuits from Parle Products. Mayank Shah, Group Product Manager, Parle Products, shares its brand building journey since its inception in 1939 as Parle Glucose. When it saw threat from local manufacturers copying the product, its name was changed from Parle-Glucose to Parle G, in order to differentiate the product. The tagline then was ‘Swaad Bhare, Shakti Bhare! Parle-G’. “In 1996 a new campaign was launched at the time when Britannia was seriously looking to enter the biscuit category with Tiger. The brand had to do a bit of layering and fortify the product. Thus the campaign focused on the ingredients of the product like wheat, glucose and other things. Basically, the product benefit was shown in the commercials,” shares Shah.
Subsequently, the brand, while it earned its trust among consumers, launched ‘Value campaign’ to call itself caring, honest and trustworthy brand. Moving up the ladder, in 2001, its fun-filled campaigns started targeting kids as a separate category of TG. It also rolled out ‘Achiever’s’ and ‘Genius’ campaigns to imply that its consumers have these two qualities. Shah adds that in 2010, the brand essence reflected it as a brand loved by all and one equally irrespective of financial status. In 2011, the company has repeated its 2003 ‘Testimony’ campaign, which is based on consumers’ experience with Parle G.
Similarly, Nestle Maggi Noodles has reinforced its brand promise as a healthy and dependable snack from being a quick fix packaged food, a novelty when launched in 1983. Now, since other brands have jumped into this category, such as Knorr, Sunfeast Yipee and Top Ramen, Maggi tries to rejuvenate its brand proposition on an emotional plane, which creates an attitudinal loyalty among consumers.
Thus, the primary goal of laddering is to enter the emotional necessity aspect of consumer mind space to transform star products into cash cows for the company (read BCG Matrix). This, further helps in preventing consumers from switching to rival brands. “A brand lives in the minds and hearts of customers. In an age where thousands of brands proliferate, the brands that are remembered the most are the ones that create the maximum affinity with customers at the emotional level,” shares, Shailen Soni, COO, RK Swamy BBDO (creative agency for Raymond).
At the peripheral level, every brand may seem to talk about functionality, however, as Abraham Koshy, Professor –Marketing, IIM Ahmedabad, explains, “These operate at a higher order emotional level, for instance FMCG brands use functional properties as an evidence of higher emotional connect.” That is why behemoths like HUL, Cadbury, Parle Products, Godrej, Nestle, PepsiCo, Coca Cola to name a few have been constantly revitalising their brand promise to create an emotional bonding with consumers.
Bonding on trust
Raymond for instance has transformed into a brand that offers not just quality products but an aspiration to consumers – an attitude that lends the buyer a sense of wholeness. This is reflected in its brand communication – ‘The Complete Man’. Koshy says that most brands especially high-end ones, reflect aspirational values that create desirability for owning such a product.
Aniruddha Deshmukh, President– Textiles, Raymond Limited, divulges, “At Raymond, we have always believed in connecting with the consumer beyond our products and services. As a brand, we are our consumers’ partners at important and momentous occasions of their lives, so the emotional connect becomes an integral part of our positioning.” He also shares that with Raymond, functional characteristics and differentiators continue to be the brand’s underlying foundation, while the emotional value is a re-affirmation of the faith, the consumers have on the brand at key life stages. The tagline is a direct reflection of the values of trust, excellence, quality and leadership associated with the brand.
“Today, businesses and consumers are placing increasing importance on brands. Brands give consumers a sense of identity, stimulate their senses and enrich their life experiences. People have needs to affiliate and surround themselves with things they know well, trust and aspire to be. From a customer viewpoint, a brand is a signal of quality and creates a bond of trust with the manufacturers behind them,” reiterates, Martin Roll, Business & Brand Strategist, Martin Roll Company.
According to Roll, some global brands that exemplify laddering are Coca-Cola, Harley Davidson, Chanel, IBM, Giorgio Armani, L’Oreal, Louis Vuitton and Apple. He also thinks Asian brands have very successfully leveraged their service excellence in offering customers an unparalleled brand experience. “It illustrates that Asia has a huge untapped potential to develop strong brands with strong emotional connections,” he adds.
Brand message changes with consumer culture
As any brand moves up the brand ladder; it aims at providing an emotional relevance with its consumers while undergoing image makeover. Dettol has moved beyond its imagery of antiseptic to a wholesome solutions provider for a healthy Dettol family. Similarly, Cadbury, in its initial years, was what any chocolate would be - a treat for kids. In the early ‘90s, Cadbury shifted gears to target the teens and the adult market, which was hitherto untouched. “The ‘Real Taste of Life’ campaign, positioned Dairy Milk as a chocolate that awakened the little child in every grown-up, and very soon, both teenagers and adults, were hooked on to Cadbury Dairy Milk bar. Early in the last decade, the ‘Kucch Meetha Ho Jaaye’ campaign was launched to position Cadbury Dairy Milk as the new substitute to traditional sweets that people enjoy. Moving on, Cadbury took a step further, to build a stronger emotional and cultural connect with consumers with ‘Shubh Aarambh’ and ‘Meethe mei Meetha’ campaigns. Through our campaigns, we are communicating to all those who love meetha - something sweet!” says, Chandramouli Venkatesan - Director, Snacking & Strategy, Cadbury India.
Roll suggests that all companies aspire to build brands that eventually get etched in the culture of the society and become cultural icons. But very few companies are able to achieve this iconic status, which has to be carefully planned and executed. Srinivas Murthy, Director, Marketing, Coca-Cola India, shares one such example. “While products are launched, adding emotional element to it only helps the brand connect with the consumers in their day to day life. Over the years, Sprite as a brand has become synonymous with having no nonsense, honest and cut-through attitude.” The core TG for Sprite has been youth, which has been reemphasised in its latest communication– ‘University of Freshology’.
Additionally, brand laddering requires the brand to be credible in order to sustain long-term growth and hence be able to connect with consumers on abstract values. “Moving up depends on consumer learning, technological evolution and competitive foray,” suggests Koshy. For instance, Surf Excel’s ‘Daag Achhein Hain’ campaign giving an abstract value of freedom to both mother and child - sets it apart from other detergent brands. Koshy recollects, “As a consumer, I can relate to Surf’s brand message, as when I was young, my mother would get tensed with no solution to wash stains off from my uniform!”
Case of reverse laddering
So do all brands necessarily go through a similar chain of events or does it depend on the category of the product? According to Peshwa Acharya, Senior VP, Marketing, Reliance Communication, “It is not necessarily a water-tight method or series of events. In my opinion, FMCG brands mostly talk at an emotional plane, while sectors like insurance are more functionality oriented.” On the other hand, Ajay Kakar, CMO, Financial Services, Aditya Birla Group, feels that any financial product purchase is an emotional decision wrapped around a feeling of a rational decision. He feels that a consumer buys such products owing to their trust they have in a particular financial service or bank as products here have least differentiation and complex to understand. “It’s a case of reverse laddering! Financial services are the last thing to be bought on a consumer’s mind, thus financial services appeal to your wallet through your heart and focus on ‘roti, kapda aur makaan’ in their advertising. The product is not as important as one’s trust in the corporate bank. This category is about trust – thus emotional,” he explains.
Brands need to be patient
According to Soni, emotional connections take time to build up, so it is important to stay consistent and focused in brand building, and not get carried away by fads and expedience. However, Sarin says that it is up to the consumer to accept or reject a brand. Hence, it is every brand manager’s job to track consumer behaviour and promote products, and this may sometimes backfire too. For example, Koshy refers to Tata Nano, which was projected as a low priced car creating a negative imagery of its buyer as less fortunate. The market for low-priced car is not a roaring concept in the car segment. Eventually, in a bid to regain consumer confidence, Nano had to undergo change in its communication as an aspirational product, bringing happiness to the owner in its slogan – ‘Khushiyon ki chaabi’. Hence, repositioning is an important facet of the brand’s essence but more perceptible than brand laddering, which is a gradual evolutionary process.
Moreover, Acharya points out that today, marketing and branding have become more complex, a lot depends on how big the brand is, its origin makes an impact on its movement up this ladder. He says, “Good brands have a long life, although the context of their functional and emotional benefits keeps changing, and those who try too many things at one go ,often fail.” Case in point - Dalda. Think of Dalda, one automatically visualizes a yellow can of Vanaspati. The company has made desperate rebranding attempts to carve a space in the refined oil category. Brands like Kelvinator and BPL too lost out on consumer loyalty. Hence, any brand communication should reflect brand essence. Kakar adds that banks, too, should be consistent in their communication to stay relevant. He alerts that since Mutual Fund penetration is 5 per cent, and Life Insurance only 15 per cent, brands in this sector should find a different positioning and stick to it. “Be honest and not diabetic,” he advises.
To summarize, brand laddering, overall is a process of creating committed brand advocates and die hard loyal customers that form the core users of the brand. “Of course, in this journey, the brand offerings need to remain relevant and hygiene taken care of at every step,” concludes Soni.