Discovering Your Brand Essence

Phillip KotlerApril 11, 20123 min

A process called “laddering” is often used to uncover the essence of a brand. Laddering is based on the notion that brand meaning can be deepened by examining progressively more abstract implications of a brand’s features. The bottom rung of the ladder represents the starting point, which is usually an attribute.

The implication of this attribute is a functional benefit, which is the second rung on the ladder. And the implication of a functional benefit is an emotional benefit, which is the third rung on the ladder. Finally, the emotional benefit implies the brand’s essence. As the ladder is ascended, the focus is less on the attributes of the brand and more on the role that the brand plays in consumers’ lives.

To illustrate the laddering process, consider how the weight-loss brand Jenny Craig might use laddering to market its weight-control meals. Jenny Craig delivers low-calorie meals that provide the needed balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. The implication of these attributes is that they will facilitate healthy weight loss. Losing weight will enhance physical appearance and thus self-esteem, as reflected in greater satisfaction with life. Thus, Jenny Craig’s essence is enhancing the enjoyment of life, which is the consumer’s goal in using the brand.

Brand essence can also be developed by associating a brand with brands in other categories that share a common goal. In a McDonald’s ad depicting a blind date, a young man named Larry calls on his date. He immediately attempts to manage her expectations by clarifying who he is and who he is not. He points out that he is not a doctor, lawyer, banker, or CPA. He is a store clerk. He tells his date that they will not be dining at a bistro, casa, or maison, nor will they be attending the opera, the symphony, or the ballet. Instead he proposes that they drive in his ordinary car to McDonald’s and then go to a movie. The factors common to Larry’s job, car, and choice of restaurant and entertainment imply McDonald’s brand’s essence, an unpretentious place to get a good meal.

The association of a brand with products in disparate categories often results in the anthropomorphizing of the brand. Thus, brands might be viewed as having a gender, age, social class, as well as personality characteristics. Apple is approachable, Burger King is masculine, and Old Navy is family-oriented. Cartier watches are upscale and Timex is for everybody. Thus, in developing a brand’s position, it is important to recognize that the benefits selected reflect the brand’s personality, which is as much a part of the brand as its category membership and point of difference. Indeed, when Levi’s positioned its brand to attract upscale consumers, it dropped its line of coveralls, which implied that it was a blue-collar brand.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider By: John Wiley & Sons, excerpted from Kellogg on Marketing, 2nd Edition by Alice M. Tybout (editor), Bobby J. Calder (editor), Phillip Kotler (foreword by) (c) 2010 by The Kellogg School of Marketing.

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