When thinking about all the brands we come across in our life, brands we see and use every day, we can view them in one of three categories or brand levels. Functional, brands that compete on “what” the customer gets, very much like a commodity; Emotional, brands that compete on “how” they make the customer feel by elevating beyond what you get to include how they make you feel emotionally; or Immersive, brands that connect so deeply with the customer they define “who” you are and more importantly what you believe in often becoming a badge of honor creating a cult-like following of like-minded people living similar lifestyles. The higher the level a brand reaches the greater the bond and the deeper the relationship the brand enjoys with the customer.
As the pyramid illustrates the three brand levels build upon one another with every brand having a functional foundation by which they deliver their product or service to the customer. A majority of brands move up a level and connect with their customers emotionally eliciting feelings that differentiate their brand’s functional offerings. Finally, some brands are able to reach the highest level of branding connecting to a set of beliefs their customers hold becoming an important part of their lives as an immersive brand. Essentially you can think of the three levels as like the brand, love the brand and live the brand.
Looking a bit deeper into each brand level we can better understand how brands operate at each brand level and how the focus might change as brands progress up the pyramid. To be successful every brand and business must be able to satisfy basic functional needs of customers with their product or service and as a result establish a very logical connection between the brand and the customer. Brands operating only at a functional level behave more like commodities and are forced to compete in literal terms usually on price and convenience. Functional brands often compete to get customers to “like” their brand and usually operate in highly crowded categories making these products and services more easily substituted for one another. Not surprisingly these brand types rely heavily on marketing and advertising running promotions and discounts on their products and services. These brands might not be all that exciting and mainly focus on fulfilling basic customer needs. The important thing is these brands must be reliable and consistently deliver on the functional needs of the customer. Imagine a beverage company where nothing was consistent and the flavor was always changing, the ingredients were changing and it was difficult to rely on them or know what to expect. You would lose confidence in the brand and very likely stop using and buying the product all together.
Products like milk and gasoline are good examples of functional product brands. These products build their relationship with the customer based on a simple expectation of “how they work” and they deliver upon customer expectations consistently. It’s not that there is necessarily a lack of opportunity to move to a higher brand level it’s just the business operates fine without being more than their promise – in almost all cases these brands mainly focus on price and distribution.
The next brand level is an emotional brand and these brands go beyond the functional level and create emotional connections to their brand. More than what these products do for you (functional), it is about how they make you feel (emotional) when using the brand. The emotional brand level elicits feelings the customer associates with the brand and the product. The emotional brand level is where most brands strive to be spending a significant amount of time and money positioning brand communications to trigger those feelings in the customer.
Brands like United – “Fly the Friendly Skies”, Chase Bank – “Freedom”, Bounty – “The Quicker Picker Upper” or even Walmart - ”Always the Low Price Leader, Always” try to stand out in what can be viewed as commoditized categories. Most of these companies spend significant investments on media like TV, radio, print through advertisements to deliver their message, build loyalty and sell their products. Emotional brands know they have connected when customers begin reciting their brand messages whenever they see the brand logo or hear the brand jingle.
Most brands recognize the value of building deeper connections with their customers beyond meeting functional needs and strategize and develop ways to reach the customer on an emotional level with service, product exclusivity, environment or other benefits that can be intangible and make the customer feel the brand is a better choice than the alternatives. By leveraging emotional connections through advertising and marketing and conveying their brand as a uniquely better choice they win. Emotional brands are generally more “sticky” than functional brands becoming preferred choices for customers and lessening the influence of functional benefits like price and convenience. In fact, building a more emotional connection often allows a brand to have higher pricing because the customer believes it is worth more. Building an emotional connection releases feelings towards the brand much like people experience with friends or family and helps make the choice more comfortable for the customer. Customers believe they are getting more than just a product or service.
The third and highest brand level is an immersive brand. More than what they do or how they make you feel they actually help define who you are and what you stand for – like a badge of honor. These are brands like Disney, Nike, Apple, Patagonia, Lulu Lemon, Under Amour, and Starbucks – often classified as lifestyle brands viewed as premium in their category. These companies build meaningful experiences with the customer immersing them into their brand. The brands have solid functional products and services that satisfy customer needs, create positive feelings for the customer and on top of that they immerse their customers in a sense of purpose – something meaningful that the customer believes in. These brands have employee cultures that are equally as immersive as the customer brand connections. In fact, it is almost impossible to separate the corporate culture from the brand culture and that is one of the unique traits of immersive brands. The brand transcends both the customer and employee cultures bringing them together as one with the product or service becoming a means to the brand experience.
Among the attributes these brands and companies have is a very clear vision of who they are, what they stand for and why they exist. These brands have products that are a means to a higher purpose. For example Starbucks purpose is to be the “Third Place” between work and home. Apple provides products that unlock people’s creativity. Disney entertainment creates experiences that deliver life long memories. All of these companies are connecting with customers at the highest emotional level and become important parts of people’s life stories. These brands understand the power of storytelling and how their story helps customers to connect with them, derive meaning and purpose and build experiences which customers share and recruit other like-minded customers called word-of-mouth marketing. Employees are a critical part of the brand storytelling and are treated as important and sometimes more important than the product itself.
As mentioned earlier, most brands are found in brand levels one and two building financially successful businesses that operate for decades. Success is not limited to reaching the highest level of immersive branding, however, brands reaching this level becoming immersed in people’s lives are usually category leaders commanding a premium value and price and create cult-like followings. Immersive brands almost always spend less money on marketing and advertising, have limited or no discounts and instead invest the money in the brand experience through customer engagement.
So, how do immersive brands build these environments? They all have a functional level grounded in logical connections and the expectation of the customer is that the product will work the way they expect it to. Like every other brand they have a basic promise they are “selling” and sort of a nonnegotiable position the product or service is expected to deliver. They build brand marketing and advertising campaigns that reflect the emotional connections between the customer and the brand. What is different and unique is having a brand purpose driven by a desire to change something for the better - to right a wrong so to speak. The brand engages the hearts and minds of their customers and employees on a mission to make the world a better place! It’s that sense of purpose and tribal cult-like community that creates an immersive environment.
Immersive brands trigger a deep sense of “love” for and to the brand and what they mean in the customers lives. Whenever you ask someone about an immersive brand they always respond with “I love that brand!” The love is just like how they feel about family and friends as if the brand is a living breathing thing. These brands occupy a special place in a customer’s heart and mind that is uplifting to the human spirit. Their trust, expectations and advocacy for the brand can be so high customers reach a point of vulnerability. When something goes wrong with the brand the customer takes it personally and holds the company to a higher standard than other brands.
In today’s hyper connected social media driven society immersive brands can be born overnight. Equally, without strong leadership, understanding and experience brands can also quickly unravel. The most important element in building a lasting immersive brand is ensuring the organization has a sense of purpose, values and beliefs appealing to a cause higher than what you are selling. By listening an encouraging customers and employees for constant feedback leaders can remain good curators of the brand, best serving the brand community and help change the world for the better.