How branding is inseparable from consumer perceptions and sales
For food companies, the reputation of their brand(s) means everything to their success in terms of shaping consumers’ finicky perceptions and encouraging sales.
Tracy Landau, marketing lead of food brand marketing and communications consulting firm MarketPlace, explained how and why branding is important to the food industry and what smaller and more established brands can do to remain successful amidst the changing times.
Adapting to trends: New vs. established brands
For new and established brands, marked differences separate how companies adapt to changing consumer trends, the most recent example being a renewed focus on healthy foods. An established brand may have trouble repositioning itself in this healthier foods landscape. In contrast, as a newer company, Chobani was able to position itself as a healthy foods company from the beginning and market its products as such, as the brand offered Greek yogurt, a healthier alternative in an already popular market segment.
Suddenly, consumers started paying attention to what was in their foods. Upon discovering high levels of sugar or sugar alternatives in many established yogurt brands, such as Yoplait or Dannon, some consumers turned instead to Chobani for less sugar and more protein in a food they already regularly bought.
The brand reinvention challenge
As another example, a firmly established company like Coca-Cola Co. would have an even more difficult time trying to assimilate into the healthy preferences of consumers. For many consumers, Coke has long been considered to be something that tastes good and quenches their thirst but was not generally perceived as healthy. Even if the company did put out a healthier product, such as its attempts with Coca-Cola Life and a long-time bet on Diet Coke, these still have never been seen wholly as
"healthy" products but rather "less unhealthy" versions of the flagship product.
"The Chobanis and newer brands have the luxury of knowing [about the health trend] going into it, where the Gatorades and Cokes who have been around a lot longer, they’re just dealing with it," said Landau. "Chobani didn’t have to reinvent themselves—they didn’t exist before. So they came into the market at the perfect time and had the perfect brand promise and brand definition, whereas bigger brands or more historic or legacy brands have a challenge. They have to reinvent themselves all the time to meet market needs."
For some brands, reinvention can not only be a challenge, but it can be almost impossible to shake the consumer perceptions they’ve had for decades.
"For Coca-Cola, it would be hard for them to come out with any health-related drink on their own—they’re not that brand," said Landau. "They’d have to reinvent themselves completely. And is that even possible? We have a strong feeling about who they are. Brands give us feelings. That’s why authenticity is so important."
Sometimes a food company’s reinvention can’t necessarily come in the form of changing the consumer perceptions of particular brands but rather acquiring other brands that can help adjust the perceptions of the company as a whole.
"This is why a lot of bigger brands will buy smaller brands, because they can’t get there on their own," said Landau. "They have to have those other brands that already have that position and already have that feeling and authenticity, and [bigger brands] have to benefit that way."
Transparency, believability, and promise
To employ the "right" type of marketing, food companies and brands can focus on three important aspects of consumer perceptions: transparency, believability, and promise.
Not following these three aspects of branding can cost a company.
"People fall out of love with brands that try to be something they are not," said Landau. "A few years ago, Diet Coke had a page on their website claiming that Diet Coke was as refreshing and hydrating as water. Is that believable? Maybe to some, but not to most. It is a claim they should have stayed away from. What is the proof? Why compare a soft drink to water? Are you seeking a debate?"
Food companies and brands can avoid this type of situation by honestly evaluating their products, marketing, and brand promises to consumers.
"Questioning claims and promises by asking, 'Is this believable?' and 'So what?' can be a good way to determine if your marketing position even makes sense," Landau said.
Cultivating a brand personality
Another crucial component to fostering positive consumer perceptions is through cultivating a personality for the brand that consumers can relate to and get behind. This closeness with consumers helps a company develop a relationship with them and shape a personality that represents the company and brand as a whole.
"Consumers want relationships with their brands, and that relationship is built upon trust," said Landau. "Invest in those relationships, know your customer intimately. Brands have their own persona. Successful brands are social, relational, and likable. They have personalities and characteristics. The humanization of brands is 'right' marketing, as long as what is behind it is real and authentic."
A brand personality should be not just a part of branding or marketing but instead should be integrated into the core or framework of a branding strategy.
"This framework of brand personality shows how a brand could be described, if it were human. Building and maintaining these personality traits is part of the marketing department's tasks. It helps to maintain or increase brand equity," said Daniel Markus Jueterbock in his book, "The Influence of Brand Personality in the Relationship of Ambush Marketing and Brand Attitude."
Landau used the example of Chobani to demonstrate brand personality in the food industry.
"When [Chobani] did their recall [in 2013], they were very empathetic, sorry, transparent, and told people what happened," said Landau. "They didn’t do a lot of fancy PR. They said, 'Please forgive us, everyone messes up.' ... In the past, some brands would have just tried to promote more. By being humble, human, it helped [Chobani’s brand] tremendously."
Branding, marketing and sales
In the end, the goal of marketing and branding for companies is to increase sales, and Landau believes that the "right" marketing can boost sales in tandem with more positive consumer perceptions of a company, brand, or product.
"If consumers believe the product will benefit them in some way, they will pay more," said Landau. "… Research we have executed here at MarketPlace, and industry studies, show that people will pay more for 'free-from' foods, products that offer a functional health benefit and/or if the product is 'natural' or 'healthy.' Today's consumer is motivated by diet and cultural trends that promote whole-food eating."
"Brands are eager to be a part of that [movement]," said Landau. "… Because it increases the value, people don’t mind as much about the cost, because it truly means something to them.”
Branding, however, is not something that should be done only in the midst of struggle against changing consumer perceptions, falling industry sales, or other problems a company faces that it wants to solve through branding.
"Probably more than half the time, the rebranding that we work on comes from a pain point," said Landau. "It shouldn’t always come from a pain point. It should be an investment, just like companies invest in buildings, people, programs, promotion, marketing. But they don’t invest in their brand all the time … If you don’t do that, you’re going to get caught up in something that’s not believable, or not being potentially transparent, or positioning yourself the wrong way. It’s forever going back to the core foundation of the brand."
For smaller brands and more established and legacy brands, branding and marketing are at the core of their success, almost as much as the products themselves. The brand needs to be at the center of any reinvention a product or company goes through from the beginning and as time goes on.
"[Legacy brands] have met market needs over time, but I would say now more than ever they need to reinvent themselves," said Landau. "So from doing the right branding and the right marketing, that reinvention, repositioning, the introduction of new products, whatever they’re doing, has to be done in a very specific way that’s authentic and believable and is aligned with their brand."