How Power Brands Sell More

By Gerhard Gschwandtner

“Most people have a very myopic notion of what branding is,” says Dr. David A. Shore, associate dean and faculty member at Harvard University. He scoffs at the common perception that branding is all about awareness, saying, “We know that awareness is almost irrelevant. What matters is strategic awareness.” To illustrate his point, he calls attention to an industry where brand awareness is high: “When I ask people if they ever heard of Simmons mattresses, they say yes. When I ask them about other brands, they say Sealy and Serta or Stearns & Foster. But when it comes to buying a mattress, people are more influenced by the salesperson than by the power of the brand.” The reason, Shore explains, is simple: people can’t see any distinction between those brands. The awareness level is very high but the strategic awareness level is very low. Most people have no clue as to what brand of mattress they are sleeping on, and they will have no clue as to what brand to buy when they replace their mattress nine years later.

Some people spend sleepless nights worrying about how to get into Dr. Shore’s lectures at Harvard. One executive in the automotive industry had a $75,000 budget approved to fly to Boston from Detroit to soak up the secrets of building a power brand and had to go on a very long waiting list. Because she had good selling skills and represented a power brand, she got in.

Shore says, “Everyone has a brand. The only question is, How much equity does it have in the market?” What disturbs Shore about measuring brand equity is that most companies test only for awareness. He says, “Brand awareness does not always relate to sales success. For example, in Denmark McDonalds has higher brand awareness than Burger King, but young adults show a strong preference for Burger King. It is not uncommon for the brands with the highest awareness to lose sales to a brand that’s not as well known.”

If that paradox doesn’t surprise you enough, it gets more interesting. Shore says that in some industries one brand may score the highest awareness and another brand may enjoy an even higher preference, but a third brand can achieve the highest sales.

That’s the reason Dr. Shore recommends measuring brand equity every six months and checking it against the competition. A brand equity survey does not need to be fancy, but it must address the key questions: Do your customers ask for your brand by name? Do customers see a difference between your brand and a competitive brand? Is the customer willing to purchase your brand? Shore of course has his own brand equity test that he also conducts as part of a brand audit.


Shore explains what sales managers should think about: It’s not about awareness, it’s about strategic awareness; it’s not about quality, but it’s all about perceived quality. While manufacturers invest millions of dollars in developing products to the highest levels of quality, most customers are unable to assess quality. That’s why quality substitutes like consistency, dependability and trust receive more attention in the sales and marketing process. Says Shore, “What inspires trust varies from industry to industry. For example, in the fine watch industry, the number one trust cue is location. There isn’t a fine watch that doesn’t say Swiss Made. The second trust cue is longevity. When you read that a Swiss watch has been produced since 1878, it reinforces that trust. A third consideration in building a brand is the singular distinction.” Shore emphasizes the word “singular.” He warns that if you’re trying to be all things to all people, you’re nothing to anyone. When companies emphasize too many benefits, none of them will stick out.

To illustrate how perceived quality springs from a concentrated effort, Shore talks about how Volvo has built a power brand for the past 70 years, “Volvo’s singular distinction is that they build a very safe car. Everything they do reinforces that image. The boxy design makes the car look like a tank. The paper used in their brochures is thicker to reinforce their sturdy image. When Volvo introduced a convertible last year, the C70, the trademark slogan for that car was ‘Tan safely.'”

Says Shore, “Everything about Volvo is designed to make you feel safe. They have an integrated identity campaign and they coordinate communications to reinforce the same theme in the marketplace. If you keep doing that, the marketplace will begin to believe that theme.” Shore labels that phenomenon the Rosenthal Effect, which states that people act as they believe they should act. He remembers a conversation with a student at his Branding Boot Camp™. “We own two cars,” said the student, “When my wife drives one car, she drives like a race car driver. When she drives our Volvo, she stays 100 feet back, she uses turn signals, and she drives defensively.” Shore deadpanned, “She seems to drive under the influence of the car’s brand image.” He added his own personal experience to testify to the power of transformation caused by a brand: “I remember when I came to Harvard a decade ago. It was amazing how much smarter I got overnight.”


Many years ago, people had little choice but to buy everything they needed from local merchants. Local stores enjoyed a high level of trust and there was no need to have some kind of external symbol to enforce that trust. When railroads were built, people began to deal with merchants that they did not know personally, and they wanted some kind of external validation that created confidence. The whole idea of the branding process came from cattle farmers who needed to be able to distinguish their livestock so people could tell them apart. Shore feels that today we are in a similar situation. “We are exposed to over 2,000 brand impressions a day. We don’t want to treat every purchase as a first-time investment. We don’t want to analyze a new product every time, and a brand saves us time.” Shore offers a practical example: “If you take the label off those blue jeans, people can’t tell them apart. Put the label back on and they’re willing to pay a premium price for them. We know that in the restaurant industry when people know the brand of food they are eating, it tastes better. When they know it’s Heinz Ketchup, it simply tastes better, and people are willing to pay a premium.”

Shore cites a number of examples of brands that command a premium price. “There is not a chemical laboratory in the world that can distinguish Clorox bleach from another brand, yet people pay a higher price for it.” When it comes to drugs, says Shore, people are willing to pay an extraordinary premium, citing the case of Zantac, a medication to treat heartburn. (Selling Power checked the price of 60 Zantac 150 mg, which was listed at for $101.37. The site sells the generic equivalent called Ranitidine 150 for only $10.98.)


What is the essence of a brand? “Brands represent the facts that people think of and the feelings they experience when they think of your product,” says Shore. The imagery that a brand evokes is often more important than the sales presentation delivered by the salesperson.

Shore told Selling Power, “The one thing I’d recommend to a sales force is to attempt to own something that’s proprietary. A sales force needs to appreciate that sometimes it is smarter not to compete on the product level.” Shore argues that the sale is made in the customer’s mind and heart, therefore we need to decide what we want customers to think about. “I would argue that typically it’s not the product or service,” he says, “It’s something that surrounds it. For example, Nike doesn’t sell sneakers. They sell heroism. Johnson & Johnson decided that they don’t want to be associated with pain, but only with pleasure, softness and babies.” Shore analyzes the chain of facts and feelings evoked by the brand. “Johnson & Johnson says that they have a gentle formula in their baby shampoo. The benefit is that there are no more tears, so they own the ‘no more tears’ brand. The consequence for the parent and the baby is a better bathing experience and the value is that the customer feels like a caring parent.” The Johnson brand moves from facts to features to benefits to feelings to consequences and to the value of being a caring parent. Says Shore, “It’s no surprise that people are willing to pay more for being a good and caring parent.” That’s something a generic baby shampoo can’t compete with.

Shore reaches down to the fundamental level of a brand: “A brand is more than name recognition and a promise to the customer. A good brand makes people willing to pay more, travel further and wait longer.”

While brands like Volvo or Johnson & Johnson have evolved for many years, few organizations synchronize their brand-building efforts. Says Shore, “In many companies I work with, everyone has a different perception of what the brand stands for. Taking charge of a brand image is often more challenging than herding cats.”


“Advertising is not branding,” cautions Shore. Many companies make the mistake of delegating branding to their advertising agencies. “Ads are a tactical component of branding,” explains Shore. “I see branding as a larger umbrella under which communications, marketing, advertising and sales fall.” The new power title in Fortune 1000 companies is CBO, or Chief Branding Officer.

The job of branding begins with a positioning statement. “It says, Here is what we want to own in the minds of the marketplace,” says Shore. When Shore works as a consultant, he often gets different stakeholders from the company to articulate the core elements of a positioning statement and weaves them into a consensus document.

Shore adds that branding is often a ticklish task that involves managing subtleties. “The dramatic distinction that’s often lost is the difference between brand image and brand identity. Brand image is how the market currently thinks of you. Brand identity is how you want the market to think about you. Brand identity is aspirational. But you can’t get to that place unless you clearly understand how the market thinks of you now.”

The CBO’s aspiration is to establish a power brand. Power brands cannot have different messages. “Everyone has to speak with one voice,” cautions Shore. “The CBO has to be able to herd cats that are often too eager to promote a brand as it pleases them. Also, the CBO should not be the “logo police” exclusively. A branding officer is not someone who says, ‘Okay, you can put your logo here,’ or ‘Your typeface has to be a certain size.’ What I recommend is that companies understand and manage brands like an extraordinarily valuable asset. That’s why the branding officer should report to the CEO.” His point of view solidifies quickly when companies begin to measure brand equity. After all, it’s not what you produce that counts. What counts on the balance sheet is what you produce in the minds of your customers.


Shore believes that CBOs and VPs of sales and marketing should work closely together. “The sales force is the most visible manifestation of the brand. Salespeople need to say with a singular voice, ‘This is who we are and, by extension, this is who we are not.’ The critical element that power brands have is trust, and a sales force needs to become the trusted advisor to the customer.” Shore emphasizes the importance of trust. “This is an extraordinary responsibility. The sales force has the moral equivalent of a guidance counselor who clearly understands what the brand is and knows not to extend it too far and not to overpromise.”

The greatest success comes when a power sales force supports a power brand. Shore offers a formula, with the acronym ASK, for integrating brand power with sales power. “The first letter is for affective feelings,” says Shore. For example, when people shop on Fifth Avenue in New York, or on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, or on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, what counts is the emotional experience involved in the purchase, not the price of the product. The second element is skills: the ability to deliver on the promise, the ability to skillfully assess and serve the needs of the customer. The third is knowledge. Shore explains, “The more knowledgeable someone is about you, the more brand savvy, the more customers will look at you. The problem is that at first glance all brands look very similar. That’s why you need strategic awareness – so you can get a share of the market.

Shore has looked at hundreds of organizations, studied their marketing plans and financial models and concluded that there are extraordinary opportunities for organizations to improve. He says, “Most companies don’t understand that a brand is like a house with a front door and a back door. Most companies work very hard to get customers in the front door, and people don’t recognize that the house has a back door through which customers are leaving.” Shore warns that people in charge of a brand should never operate in an Ivory Tower, but should become an integral part of the sales team. He also cautions sales managers to become aware of how their salespeople talk up their product, since sales stories can easily enhance or dilute a brand. “The best sales force,” says Shore, “has one foot in the library and one foot in the street.”

To balance brand power with selling power, Shore suggests having the Chief Branding Officer on hand at product launches, marketing campaigns and annual sales training programs. Says Shore, “The Chief Branding Officer is the steward of the brand. The branding team should remind the sales force, ‘This is who we are, and here is what we want to own.’ They should be integrated into the team effort.”


The invisible but extremely valuable ingredient in any power brand is trust. “The brand makes a promise to the customer, and the customer trusts the brand to fulfill the promise,” says Shore. What if something goes wrong? “Power brands have a firewall that protects them against random adversity,” clarifies Shore. “When something goes wrong, people tend to forgive a mistake. For instance, if you stayed at a branded hotel like a Hyatt, Hilton or Marriott, and you had a less-than-optimal experience, you would say that this was an exception for that brand and you would give them a second chance. If you had exactly the same experience with an unknown hotel, you’d never go back there again and you would tell 10 other people about it.”

A brand relationship is very similar to a personal relationship, says Shore. “It’s very much like when you start dating. The promise embodies the potential of what might be, and of course trust is extraordinarily low. Then, if you decide to go steady, you begin to think that there is some possibility, which is the equivalent of strategic awareness – you see something and you’ll give it a try. When you are going steady, the promise and trust goes up and that’s when the perceived quality is high. Then, finally, you are getting engaged, which I call the sweet spot. This is when you say, ‘This is the one for me.’ (Customers say, ‘That’s a preferred provider.’) What’s interesting is that when you get engaged to someone, you’re called ‘fiancé.’ When you look up the definition, the translation of this French word means a promise and trust. That’s what brand relationship management is all about – building trust.”

Of course, people often become estranged from brands, and they separate and get divorced because the brand doesn’t live up to the promise of trust. Trust takes a long time to build and it can be destroyed in a heartbeat, Shore observes.

The good news is that once brands are well established they tend to become champions of endurance. It comes as no surprise that the majority of brands that were leaders in their category in 1923 are still leaders today. Campbell in the soup market, Wrigley in the chewing gum market and Ivory in the soap market are notable examples. Says Shore, “Cars rust out, people die, but power brands endure. Power brands gain more customers, sustain more employees and retain higher shareholder value.”