Unwrapping Your Brand’s True Value
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Unwrapping Your Brand’s True Value

How to strike the right balance between deliverables and messaging.
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What’s more important for the holidays, the gift or the gift wrap?

“I often use the metaphor of the gift and the gift wrap when I talk about branding,” says Dan Wallace, my co-author on The Physics of Brand. “Gift wrap is the communication that signals an expectation. The gift is the experience and social-economic value of the brand,” says Wallace, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. “When the gift and gift wrap are well matched, the chance of success goes up.”

This seems like such a simple, easy get, the kind of knowledge you just high-five, then move on to the next thing on your list. Yet the metaphor offers so much more to explore when thinking about the investments companies make in marketing. Let’s unwrap it.

The “gift” is the offering, and like many offerings today, it isn’t as obvious as a widget. It includes an experience and all the complexity that comes with delivering on a promise in a competitive environment. The gift wrapping sets an expectation of what’s to come with the actual product or service. And it’s harder than ever today to control the gift wrapping once the bows get tied up in social media, earned media, and the stuff fewer people notice, paid media.

In the 1980s and ’90s, advertising tended toward an abundance of overpromising (Reebok “Pump It Up” trainers, Wendy’s hamburgers, Guess Jeans, and United Colors of Benetton) —gift wrapping that looked like woven gold was actually just a spot-gloss finish, and it was wrapped around a Pet Rock. Because it often cost too much to improve the gift, funds went into overpromising.

The more intangible the exchange between giver and recipient, the more expertise required to design and refine both the gift and gift wrap.

Nowadays, it’s easier for the consumer to reject the gift and go buy the next one. It’s also easier for lies and puffery to proliferate via social media—even our news is tainted with clear and present political bias. The influential power is transferring from brand handlers (retailers, media, and social platforms) to communities (Facebook groups, hashtags, activist movements, etc). We can hope more power moves into the hands of individuals as we can at least trust our own judgment, because trust in brands and institutions is still declining.

Today we sit on the edge of another decade and look to what will come of this craptastic year—hopefully a reset, with fewer poorly wrapped gifts and a return to a balance of what we design as the offering and what the wrapping does to entice a purchase. Using this metaphor, we have three areas to rethink: 

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Marketing investment. Understanding where you are weak—in the gift or the gift wrapping—requires some precise research. Then, invest in ways the two can be in balance, with the gift having a slight edge. If your robin’s-egg-blue jewelry box rattles when it arrives (not a good signal from the gift or gift wrap), then you might want to design some improvements, because it will affect how people feel about the gift.

Balancing priorities. Most customers will say what matters most is the gift, but then they pick your competitor with the better gift wrap. If customers can’t see if you have a (gifted) advantage, you need some work to help that feeling come to life for a potential customer. Balancing the offering and the brand is both an art and science; it takes experience and an honest look at the knowledge your customers provide you.

Level of expertise. The more intangible the exchange between giver and recipient, the more expertise required to design and refine both the gift and gift wrap. And with more intangibles (patents, trademarks, loyal customers, and secret sauces) comes more margin—just ask 3M (that is, margin and more margin). Commodities lack intangibles, kind of like the chunk of coal you get in your stocking. The more intangible, the more you need to increase the level of expertise to design a better gift and wrap it properly.

Disappointment in a brand can be difficult to overcome. We’ve all experienced it—when you see the largest gift in the pile with your name on it, only to find Uncle Larry wrapped the Electric Fart Machine in the biggest box. In a year with plenty of unfortunate surprises, it is a good time to reconsider how your gift pairs with the gift wrap.

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