Turning Brand Equity into Profits

Brands have a lot to think about as they try to build consumer loyalty.

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This July 25, 2011 photo, shows Hershey's chocolate in Overland Park, Kan. The Hershey Co. said Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012, that net income rose 5 percent in the fourth quarter, despite higher ingredients costs.

On November 12, Brand Innovators kicked off its first summit on the concept of brand equity. Marquee sponsor Bloomberg Media hosted the event in New York to discuss the importance of engaging with consumers in a way that builds brand loyalty, a key component for sustainable sales success.

The connection between brand marketing and the financial markets is very real. Co-founder of Brand Innovators, Marc Sternberg said, "Companies that connect consumers to their brand effectively are rewarded by Wall Street profits."

Brand Innovators now boasts more than 3,000 members and sponsors multiple networking events and conferences throughout the year. Founded in 2001, the company is building a peer-to-peer network of brand marketing "change agents" who facilitate growth within each of their respective companies.

At the event, Brand Innovators singled out three companies as successful examples in converting brand equity into profits: Chobani, Panera Bread and Priceline.

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While Priceline has enjoyed enviable visibility over the past several years thanks in part to its famous spokesman, William Shatner, the degree to which its brand equity contributed to its financial success is difficult to determine. It is one thing to recognize a clever marketing campaign, but deconstructing (and replicating) brand success is a challenge of its own.

How did Priceline's stock rise from a low of $6.60 a share in October 2002 to its November 2013 price of over $1,100 per share?

Millward Brown Optimor President and Global Chair Mario Simon believes that it is important for marketers to learn what works from established brands. He added, "You need to ask the questions that will impact your brand in the future, not just look back at the past." Create meaning in the eyes of consumers, and be committed to ideals that transcend the product. Many of the most successful brands share similar ideals, such as a focus on brand culture and heritage.

For some companies, looking at brand equity requires a nuanced integration of new technology platforms alongside traditional brand ideals. Director of Mobile Marketing at Hershey, Ed Martin, spoke to the importance of both competence and warmth as necessary tools for brand survival. The founders of Hershey set a "tonality" for the way that the company engages with consumers. The chocolate brand focuses on being perceived as an honest, trustworthy and philanthropic organization.

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"People look at your brand, but also intentionality," Martin explained to the crowd. "People want to know who's behind the brand."

While Hershey might enjoy a particularly nostalgic relevance in the hearts and minds of chocolate lovers all over the world, Martin described the concept of warmth as a relevant value for every brand and industry. "You don't need to be as warm as Hershey," Martin clarified. "You just need to be the warmest in your industry."

According to Forbes Top 15 Social Media Power Influencer 2013 Ted Rubin, brand equity can be summed up as the stories that become a part of people's lives. Formerly the Chief Marketing Officer of e.l.f. Cosmetics, and the Chief Social Marketing Officer for both OpenSky and Collective Bias, Rubin has made a career of determining how and why consumers forge certain relationships with particular brands.

"Brand Equity is strategically crucial, but difficult to quantify," says Rubin. "Add in the new evolving world of social media and the 24/7 interaction it enables, and brands have a lot to think about."

When Sarah McAloon first joined the Sbarro team as Chief Marketing Officer, she said, "We had lots of things to talk about, and we didn't talk about them." She described the public perception of Sbarro's food as outdated "mall pizza," though the eatery uses high-quality ingredients and makes its dough fresh onsite daily. High prices and its ubiquitous placement in shopping mall food courts had shifted Sbarro's image far from its origins as an authentic Italian restaurant.

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McAloon's strategy for reintroducing Sbarro to the public includes a focus on engaging with customers via social media. "To make friends with our fans and be a source of connection on whatever level they want. That might be entertainment, education on the brand or a source for getting questions answered," says McAloon. "We seek to understand our consumers and get to know them better from their online worlds and create lasting relationships."

Enter @T-Naz, whose publicly tweeted love of Sbarro won him the honor of having breadsticks renamed after him at his local branch. The story was subsequently covered by online blog Thrillist. According to Rubin, it is maintaining this level of authenticity with consumers that sets brands apart.

"BE Authentic, don't just ACT it," says Rubin. "This might seem obvious, but authenticity is on the verge of becoming just another buzz word. TRUE authenticity – not just using that word often in your ads, tweets and posts will set your brand apart in today's highly competitive market."

Erin O'Flaherty is a former nonprofit executive who has handled social media and communications strategy for a variety of nonprofit organizations and academic institutions. Follow her on Twitter at @eeof.

Lisa Chau is the Founder of Alpha Vert, a private consultancy focused on social media and cross–platform marketing. Previously, she spent five years working for her alma mater Dartmouth College, as assistant director of alumni affairs and assistant director of PR for the Tuck School of Business. She has also taught at MIT, and guest lectured MBA and undergraduate courses in e-business strategy at Baruch College and The New School.

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