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2 Key Lessons in Brand Building

2 Key Lessons in Brand Building
Image credit: Miguel Vaca | Flickr

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College students say the darndest things. In a recent marketing class, our discussion turned to McDonald’s unique TV ad, “Signs,” which features shots of the iconic golden arches, each with a customized message on its placard:

  • Thank you Veterans
  • We Remember 9/11
  • Boston Strong
  • Hug Those Dads

“I think the ad is great,” a student in the classroom's front row said. He explained how he really liked the ad’s theme and positive emotion. What he said next, however, washed away all the brand equity: “But I still hate McDonald's.” Much of the class nodded in agreement.

It’s not fair to judge a firm’s success on a single set of reactions to one ad. Still, the students’ collective response to the commercial and to the McDonald’s brand is very telling. For every organization seeking to build or restore its brand, there are at least two valuable lessons here to be learned:

Related: The Basics of Branding

1. Actions speak louder than words.

There’s a reason why the phrase “talk is cheap” resonates with us. We know it's much easier to say things rather than back up those words with appropriate action. Whether on the basketball court or in the boardroom, our tendency is to discount the “talkers” and respect the “producers.”

Chipotle, which has been eating McDonald’s for lunch, provides a good example of the latter group. A leader in the fast-casual revolution, the Mexican grill joint does relatively little traditional advertising or talking. Instead, it lets its actions speak for it. The firm recently pulled pork from its menu because a key supplier couldn't comply with the company’s high standards for animal treatment. This significant subtraction from an already small menu had to hurt revenue, but the integrity underlying the action did much to bolster the brand.

2. Trouble can’t be turned around overnight.

Although we might forget within minutes the firm featured in our favorite Super Bowl ad, we have long memories about other things -- especially wrongs we’ve endured. Unfortunately, many people feel that fast food in general -- McDonald’s in particular -- has wronged them, and I don’t mean just health concerns. There’s also the growing notion that the food’s marginal quality isn't worth even its relatively low cost. While not an egregious one-time offense, the slow erosion of a firm’s value proposition is just as harmful.

Related: You're Rebranding. Should You Change Your Company Culture?

When a company breaks its main brand promise -- to provide its customers with true value, for instance -- it takes time and often far-reaching change to restore trust and win back allegiance. Apple knows this well. In the 1990s, when the company was on the ropes, rehired CEO Steve Jobs initiated a dynamic sequence of new product development, from iPods to iPhones to iPads. Each of these innovations was likely years in the making, and together they drove a brand transformation that took more than a decade. Of course, Apple’s tremendous success since, including its recognition as the world’s most valuable brand, has validated the firm’s considerable investment of time and resources.

For most brands, effective messaging is just the icing on the cake. Troubled brands usually have deep-rooted challenges (aka cake problems) that require more than just another layer of pretty frosting. More than simple words, the right corrective action and ample time are needed to fix a broken value proposition and restore a brand that consumers will again love.

Related: From Apple to SoulCycle: Here's How Cult Brands Breed Loyalty and Fanaticism