In the early 1970s when he was still at Bates, the great Larry Light said:

“The marketing battle will be a battle of brands, a competition for brand dominance. Business and investors will recognize brands as the company’s most valuable assets. This is a critical concept. It is a vision about how to develop, strengthen, defend and manage a business. It will be more important to own markets than to own factories. The only way to own markets is to own market dominant brands.”

Flying over America some 20 years later, Y&R’s Chairman & CEO Alex Kroll said to his trusted Global Consumer Insights Director: “You know Margaret [Mark] if we’re going to become leaders in brand building we had better be the first to create a database of brands”. That was the moment when BrandAsset valuator, the largest global study of brands ever conducted, was born. [Over the years it has measured 56 000 brands across 52 countries].

Napoleon looked for a peculiar trait when hiring an officer. He had to be lucky. My first assignment in Latin America told me that I might have that trait. Within days of landing in Miami back in 1994, I was told to launch BrandAsset at the Association of Advertising Agencies annual conference in Buenos Aires. Arrive the day before, prepped and all to go when at the last minute I discover that I’ve left all my shirts at home. Panic sets in. The conference is starting at nine thirty and I’m due to speak at ten so I rush out to the shops, only to find them all closed. Freaked out I get back to the hotel only to discover what looks like a fashion show in the lobby and on the lawns outside. [Argentineans dress with lots of style]. Now this scruffy South African has to do the keynote in a tired T- shirt ! That’s it. It’s over. But it wasn’t, everyone was in the lobby because the hotel’s alarm had gone off. To cut a long story short I get to buy my fancy shirt and tie. A lucky soldier, Napoleon would have said:

Somethings change, some stay the same. Reviewing my old slides now some 23 years later, my presentation went something like this: 

To survive and grow a brand like an animal must have some source of competitive advantage. It must be big like an elephant, strong like a lion, tall like a giraffe, out run its prey like a cheetah or jump higher like a springbok which is the symbol of our South African rugby team who [nudge, nudge] continue to out-jump you Pumas [their team]. As Darwin put it: “the individual with the sharper beak, the longer horn or the brighter feather will have the best chance of surviving and procreating its kind”. We’ve all intuitively known this, but now for the first time, consumers from all around the world have told us that it’s the key to brand power.

Yes consumers everywhere [from countries where brands are most developed to those where branding is hardly developed at all, from Moscow to Madrid to Montreal to Montevideo] tell us that the difference between a commodity and a brand is the extent to which it is perceived as being special or different, distinctive and unique. This specialness is what enables a brand to thrive in the proverbial jungle of elephants, lions, giraffes and cheetahs. More to the point for the business men in the room we’ve found that the most vital, growing and the most profitable brands on the planet enjoy disproportionately high levels of differentiation.

So key lesson #1: “Differentiation is the engine of the brand train”.

Now take a look at some of the world’s most highly differentiated brands: Benetton, Chanel, Harley Davidson, MTV, Nike, Pepsi and Playboy. These names enjoy vitality and charisma. They are trendy, charming, dynamic, inventive, original and fun. This is what differentiation is all about.

Differentiation is just the first key to brand power. The differentiation created must be made “Relevant”. It must be meaningful. It must be personally appropriate or “for me”. It must click with the consumer, it must make a connection. Ideally it should tap into a real consumer need, want or value. What we at Y&R call a “Consumer Insight”. But relevance can also come from discovering and connecting "the inherent drama of the product" as, Leo Burnett so eloquently put it, with consumers.

Key lesson #2: “Relevance is about bonding the people | brand relationship. The stronger the bond the greater the power of the brand.

Now let me share some of the world’s most relevant brands: Colgate, Duracell, Gillette, Kodak, Levi’s, Mastercard and Sony. The key commonality between these highly relevant brands is that they all jump to mind when you think of their respective categories. They own the category and this translates into them enjoying far and away the highest market share.  

High brand differentiation and relevance evokes admiration and respect. The third pillar of brand power we therefore call “Esteem”. In simple consumer language these are the brands that are most liked. So, when my son Daniel who is four years old, asks me what I do at work, I tell him that I try to get brands like Colgate toothpaste [which he hates brushing with] liked!

Differentiation and Relevance doesn’t automatically result in Esteem. Getting a brand liked also means creating the right Brand Personality because you like people who like you. To quote the Chairman of my company again: “You like people who are interesting. People who are helpful. People who are witty. People who don’t take themselves too seriously. You dislike pompous, self important people and show offs. You like friendly people. Funny people. People who are characters. People who have character. Remember brands are people too”.

Key Lesson #3: We all want to be with people we like, remember brands are people too.

Now let take a quick look at some of the world’s most Esteemed brands: BMW, Coca Cola, Disney, Harley, Nike, Rolex and Sony. These names have achieved iconic status. They have gone beyond their respective product categories to become cultural icons: Harley for the dream of freedom, Nike for the agony and the ecstasy of sport and Disney for the magic of innocent family fun.

The forth and final pillar of brand power is brand “Familiarity”. This pillar goes beyond simple brand “awareness” to capture the extent to which the brand is known and understood as well as what it stands for. Familiarity is generated out of differentiation, relevance and esteem. The key caveat is that Familiarity or share of mind is the culmination of successful brand building, not the point of departure; as so many of us who have been brought up on the “AIDA” model of “awareness, interest, desire and action” have come to believe. True brand familiarity is earned, not simply bought.

Key Lesson #4: Share of mind is the outcome of successful brand building, not the point of departure.

Here is small sampling of some of the world’s most familiar brands: Coca Cola, Disney, Gillette, Kodak, Levi’s, McDonald’s, Nestle, Sony and Toyota.

So from the consumers’ perspective that is how brands are built. The four key pillars are: Differentiation – the engine of the brand train, Relevance – the extent to which the brand owns its category, Esteem – the degree to which the brand is admired and Familiarity - the brand’s share of mind.

Now I ask myself: was all that brand power stuff really shared nearly a quarter of a century ago? How can it be that these four pillars of brand power have withstood the test of time even as such turbulent change has gone down across this small planet. And I conclude that are four immutable keys to brand power.