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Brand Elevation: Author Q+A

What is the secret to becoming a brand we all admire and are willing to pay a premium for? Why are some brands prestigious and others not? Where do you start?

In their bestselling book, Rethinking Prestige Branding, Wolfgang Schaefer and JP Kuehlwein provided a framework for driving the success of modern premium brands – creating meaning beyond the material and how to seduce, rather than sell.

Now, in the new book Brand Elevation, they put these principles into practice, offering a step-by-step guide to developing and executing a premium brand strategy.

Here, they discuss why there is a need for brands to elevate themselves, the key challenges to overcome and introduce the framework that will help you get started.

Q: Why the need for brand elevation? Isn't it sufficient to have a memorable name and be top-of-shelf at retail?

WS: People do not want to buy stuff; they want to buy INTO something bigger than a product or service. Especially if you expect them to pay a premium. Your brand needs to matter beyond the purely material - and logical - aspects.

JP: You want to build a strong positive bias (or the AI-generated recommendation by Amazon Marketplace will override the desire to experience your brand). Think Peloton versus a ‘generic’ exercise bike…

Q: The how-to model in your book outlines three sections - Dream, Do and Dare. Can you give us a quick overview of each one?

WS: We have framed the program in these simple and inspiring terms to signal right away that this is about action.

  • DREAM - is the starting and anchor point for everything: Your brand’s mission and myth. Its reason for being and the story you want to tell the world.

  • DO - is the biggest challenge in elevating your brand: Being true to your mission and myth in everything you do. Internally and externally.

  • DARE - is the way your brand must interact with the world: Courageous and confident, like a born leader. Letting your mission and myth shine through in all the stories you tell and do.

Q: Is 'Dream' a bit too 'sketchy' to be in a guide on building a strong brand and profitable business?

JP: You could also call it ‘Think Big’ - because that is essentially what it is about - but that would miss the emotional, intuitive side of it. Ultimately the first phase is and must be sketchy because you are sketching the future, your vision – and that is always in Beta.

But of course, there is a robust model that comes with it, asking the hard questions and getting very specific, especially in defining your What and How.

Q: So, is 'Dream' different from the popular strategy to define a brand purpose? How can purpose still make a difference when every brand declares to have one?

JP: It takes the ‘purpose approach’ a step further, making it mandatory to translate your mission - aka purpose, into a myth - aka meta-story. This is for two reasons:

  1. To weed out any pompous purpose statements that you cannot credibly connect to your past or present reality.
  2. And to emotionalize the mission/purpose, make it more concrete, action-driving it in the truest sense – albeit on paper only at first.

Q: Why is 'Do' important? How is it different from the 'execution' of a marketing strategy?

WS: Today, your behaviour is your brand. Any discrepancy between mission and action, or any misdeed, is immediately spotted and criticized. Your brand (and your myth) must be built inside out. Product and process, organization and culture are all key for sustainable and successful engagement with your targets. The days of a brand as a mere marketing mirage are over.

Q: Why 'Dare'? Does that not preclude brands that want to be broadly popular - market leaders - from following this guidance?

JP: No, not necessarily. Think Red Bull or Rapha, both relatively brazen in their activation strategies, yet still popular. And it is the daring that makes them so. Because only thus are they interesting for their followers, fitting their distinct lifestyles and choices.

And for the masses, it allows building aspirations, a sense of intrigue and longing – standing on the other side, wondering what exciting things go on among those that are ‘in’.

Q: What is most important when seeking to elevate your brand? Where to start? What are the biggest pitfalls?

WS: Start with yourself as an organization and product proposition. Most important for a brand is to ‘shine from the inside out’… The lack of living up to your declared mission – be it material or beyond - is the biggest threat. It is better to be humble and over-deliver, than to disappoint and be ‘found out’ as inauthentic, or worse.

Q: Can there really be such a thing as a recipe for successful branding? If so, wouldn't everyone do the same?

WS: Yes and no. It is like the alphabet. You must know and follow it to be able to write and read, yet it is up to you to configure the letters in your very own, inspiring ways to write something of interest.

Q: How is brand elevation different from seeking to create a luxury brand?

JP: Luxury brands like Bulgari, Hermes or Ferrari are elevated brands in that they are at the very, very top of their category, the ultimate in price and quality. Exclusive because of their scarcity and prohibitive cost.

However, there are many modern prestige brands that enjoy much broader popularity and reach, yet still manage to maintain a certain level of aspiration, seem special even if they are not, and are sheltered from price sensitivity despite being in categories that are not. These are the true ‘Ueber-Brands’ we talk about.

Q: Is it possible to elevate any brand - even B2B?

WS: We have not encountered any brand that cannot be meaningful beyond its utilitarian product or service. In fact, people will associate meaning – positive or negative – with your brand whether you want it or not, so it is better to be aware of that and seek to stand for things they value or even admire. Therefore, it makes no difference if you sell to end consumers or professional buyers, offer a product or a service.

Q: Can you provide some examples of brands that do a great job at elevation?

JP: There are the icons on one end when it comes to meaningful brands like Apple, Ben & Jerrys, Nike, Red Bull or Patagonia, and then there are the start-ups that stand out because they stand for more than just a good product, and are visibly putting their energy, mouth, and money where that higher mission is – such as Brew Dog, Burning Man, Everlane, Rapha and Tesla.

They are not all perfect, but each one has stories to learn from and share about how they slipped but steadied their course.

Q: It seems that many tech start-ups are very popular but lack meaningful association beyond being useful and convenient (Amazon, Uber, Facebook, etc). Is your kind of brand building an option for those?

JP: If these companies can defend the almost monopolistic position they have acquired in their industry, brand as a recognized name on a good product-only can work. But imagine the day a shopping, social media, or transportation platform emerges that is just as convenient but refuses to sell fake items, push fake news, or make a point of paying its employees a minimum wage? Would you consider moving over to them?

WS: For example, we like how Airbnb has sought - from the beginning - to stand for more than just ‘extra income for homeowners and affordable rooms for travellers.’ They looked at the deeper motivations involved on both sides and discovered ‘Belonging’ as a shared desire. (The story is well told by Douglas Atkins in the first-hand case study collection at the end of our book).

Get your copy of  Brand Elevationto explore the main drivers behind becoming a peerless and priceless brand, and how any brand can develop a winning brand strategy.

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