High-end brands offer experiences as much as services. It’s a trait that – in an increasingly customer-focused world – all businesses can and should adopt.
Ask five people to define the concept of brand in a business context and you may hear five different answers. Is it simply a product manufactured by a company under a particular name, as one definition has it? Is it a logo, symbol or design feature? Is it, as somebody suggests, ‘the emotional and psychological relationship’ a business has with its customers?
In reality, it is all those things and more. Most brand experts liken it to a business’s personality. It is what a company is called, what it looks like, how it positions itself, what its values are, and even who it associates with (its partners and customers), all rolled into one. All businesses, big and small, need to be aware of their brand image and work to promote it.
Interbrand is widely recognised as one of the world’s leading brand consultancies. Speaking at the UHY 2018 EMEA regional meeting in Barcelona, Jorge Camman, director of innovation and verbal identity at Interbrand Iberia, explained why brand has never been more important. “In a rapidly changing world, globalisation, standardisation, technology and deregulation have created more players, more products and more options. It is confusing, and people have less time to manage it all.”
For that reason, consumers look to brands to simplify their lives. If they know that a brand represents qualities they admire or aspire to, they can make quicker, easier purchasing decisions. On the flipside, brands can easily be associated with negative events. Toxic brands also simplify the lives of their customers, by removing themselves as an option for consideration.
Authentic, Relevant, Different
How do businesses create brands their customers recognise and want to associate with? “Inside the business, there has to be clarity, commitment, protection and responsiveness,” says Jorge. “Outside, the brand has to meet many criteria. I would say it must be authentic, relevant, different and consistent. Above all it has to be present (visible), and understandable.”
It is easy to see how big global names leverage that kind of brand identity to drive sales. Do you want sneakers, or Nike sneakers? Do you want a burger, or a Big Mac? But brand is not the preserve of huge global names. Small businesses can have incredibly strong brands, and that is often most true at the top end of the market.
There is a historic perception that luxury brands weather economic storms better than non-luxury brands, because they attempt to satisfy desires rather than simply solve problems. In a rapidly globalising, hyper-consumerist age, the best luxury brands provide timeless authenticity in a volatile world. They are beacons of stability and consistency, cutting through the confusion of endless choice. Their approach provides lessons that all businesses can learn.
Brand Is The Responsibility Of Everyone
Hotel d’Angleterre is a luxury hotel in Copenhagen, Denmark, and the only hotel in that country with the five star superior classification. It is also a client of Danish UHY member firm inforevision. As a small player in a market dominated by large luxury chains like Marriott and Radisson, Hotel d’Angleterre leverages brand to stay ahead of competitors.
“Hotel d’Angleterre works with branding in all imaginable areas,” says William Dixon, the hotel’s financial director. “For example, we offer training classes in ‘Luxury Behaviour’ for all staff. Both the interior and exterior of the hotel underline the fact that the brand only uses upscale products in all areas of the hotel. Of course branding is a great part of the communication across all platforms – what we are communicating, to whom and on which channels. Together all these points create a very strong brand – probably the strongest luxury brand in Denmark.”
To Hotel d’Angleterre, brand is not a logo, colour scheme, website design or staff uniform (though all these things are part of it). Brand is about experience and communication. Guests are submerged in the brand from the moment they contact the hotel to make a booking, to the moment they check out at the end of their stay. Creating a strong and positive perception is not a function of the marketing department: it is a core function of the entire business.
William says: “First and foremost it is important to us that our guests get a world-class experience during their stay with us, that we meet their expectations – or even better, that they feel they got great value for money. Prestige is nothing we deliberately pursue, but in our opinion comes naturally with the luxurious product we offer to our guests.”
Guests of Hotel d’Angleterre want more than a nice hotel room. They want a great experience, with personal service that feels unique. They want something they cannot readily find anywhere else, something William summarises as, “the legacy, the long history, the exquisite location and the staff’s deep passion for hospitality and service.”
The Evolution Of Brand
This chimes with the evolving definition of a luxury brand, which strives to build a perception beyond the utility of the product or service on offer. Malinda Sanna, founder and CEO of brand consultancy Spark Ideas, puts it like this: “True luxury today is experiential; it is having the inside track that not everyone knows about. It is highly personal and intuitive. It never copies, it leads. It surprises and takes risks. And it makes you see the brand as the only solution to your desire in a sea of sameness.”
The House of Gübelin is a Swiss, family-run fine jewellery, gemstone and watch institution with a 160-year heritage; the business is a client of UHY member firm Balmer-Etienne AG. The carefully nurtured luxury brand Gübelin Jewellery speaks softly of craftsmanship, expertise and gemmology as much as unique jewellery and design philosophy. Boutiques in Switzerland and a private salon in Hong Kong provide an extraordinary luxury experience and excellent services, creating precious moments for their guests. They nurture a reputation for virtuosity that feeds into a strong and resilient brand image.
Raphael Gübelin, President, explains how this is achieved: “The House of Gübelin possesses a sensibility for luxury based on our Deeply Inspired philosophy. With a unique combination of beauty and knowledge, we provide a deeper sense of luxury. The creations by Gübelin Jewellery are based on the inner world of gemstones, so there is an authentic inspiration – the soul of the gemstone.”
Sharing this passion and inspiration is at the heart of the House of Gübelin. For example, the Gübelin Academy has been founded to share its knowledge about gemstones with connoisseurs and professionals. And in order to increase transparency and traceability to the whole gemstone industry, the Provenance Proof initiative has been created, which provides technologies such as the Emerald Paternity Test and the Provenance Proof Blockchain, offering more information about a gem’s history.
Today’s consumers, and particularly millennials, demand this kind of interaction, and that is increasingly true even when they are in the market for less exclusive goods and services. Forward thinking businesses in all sectors – aided by technology – try to build personal relationships and emphasise authentic company values. They offer consistency, difference and relevance. Luxury branding norms trickle down to the mainstream.
In truth, there is very little difference between mass market smartphones, but the Apple brand speaks of craftsmanship and difference in a way some of its competitors struggle to match. Airbnb rents rooms or apartments of all kinds – from the luxurious to the basic – but builds its brand around the idea of an authentic travel experience. These companies are not selling exclusivity, but they are meeting millennial expectations of what brands should be.
The trickle-down effect is everywhere. Personalised marketing speaks directly to individual customers. Authentic experiences and artisan products are not necessarily luxuries, but are branded in a way that cuts through Malinda Sanna’s ‘sea of sameness’. According to research by customer intelligence agency Vision Critical, by 2020 customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator. In other words, it is increasingly true that it does not matter whether your product or service is considered a luxury or not. Consumers care less about price and more about the experience – personal, real, different – your brand offers. That’s a little bit of luxury brand wisdom every business can employ.
UHY And Brand
UHY member firms around the world can help companies put the systems and processes in place that help to create positive brands, from advising on intellectual property to addressing the accounting challenges of brand valuation and other intangible assets such as people and reputation. But it is also true that the UHY brand itself is increasingly recognised around the world as representing value for money, peace of mind and a proactive advisory culture. Member firms understand the need to offer clients the best experience.
Increasingly, UHY firms – which are independent accounting and advisory businesses operating as members of the global UHY network – are themselves using the UHY brand to substantially increase awareness, enquiries and engagement. Whether this is through considered use of digital communication platforms, bringing together previously disparate parts of the business to help clarify the offer for clients, or even using communication channels like WhatsApp and face-to-face workshops to increase engagement with clients and colleagues, the brand and what it stands for empowers UHY member firms to continuously create and offer better customer experiences.
Most importantly, clients themselves regularly comment on the personal service they receive from UHY member firms around the globe, regardless of their size or spend. By getting to know client businesses in detail, UHY member firms are able to offer a service that goes far beyond core accountancy functions. Instinctively, UHY member firms fulfil the main criteria for positive branding in 2019 by offering clients a professional services experience they will not easily find elsewhere.