The Best Creative Starts With Truly Understanding Your Brand

By Jesse Epstein and Rachel Bergstresser

Take a moment to remember the last ad you saw that made you stop and take notice. Maybe it tugged at your heartstrings or made you laugh and think, “yep, I’ve been there.” That moment of connection is a key characteristic of all great advertising and marketing. It’s the vital first step toward building an authentic relationship between consumer and brand.

We talk a lot about how important it is to know your customers when developing a brand strategy, but it’s just as important to understand your own brand and the role it plays in consumers’ lives. Being armed with this knowledge puts you in a superior position to shape customers’ brand perceptions.

Brand Awareness < Self-Awareness

Many companies are so focused on brand awareness (i.e., making sure the world is aware that their brand exists) that they lose sight of how they’re perceived by the world. They may make an impression but miss the opportunity to shape consumer sentiment. Worse, they may appear tone-deaf or out-of-touch. In contrast, companies that have a greater appreciate for the importance of managing brand perceptions are able to not only improve awareness, but also maximize brand favorability.

Google’s Year in Search campaign is an illustrative example of a major brand that understands the role it plays in the lives of its customers. Each year, Google releases a video ad spotlighting a trend in that year’s digital zeitgeist, presented through the lens of phrases people might type into a search engine.

In 2022, the theme of the year was “change.” The ad shows a montage of online content creators and major cultural moments, juxtaposed with search terms like, “how to be more positive,” “can I create change,” and “how to be fearless.” The music swells, the pace picks up, and then the ad culminates in an image from the James Webb space telescope and the message, “To everyone who sees not what the world is but what it can be…search on.”

Grandiose? Sure, but with good reason. Google is undoubtedly aware that its ubiquitous search engine is the backdrop for much of what happens in our everyday lives — and in the world at large. Put another way, any innovation, invention, or idea probably started with a Google search.

As viewers, we recognize ourselves in the ad because we’ve done it too. By framing that point of recognition in emotionally charged moments, music, and world events, Google cultivates its brand image as an agent of change and as a vital part of society.

Another example you’re probably familiar with is MasterCard’s Priceless campaign, which has been around since 1997. The long-running premise is to show a heartwarming scene while listing the costs of all the items that went into creating that experience. But the experience itself: Priceless. What better way to make spending money feel good?

As a financial brand, MasterCard recognizes its role in enabling its customers to enjoy priceless emotional moments and experiences – by helping them pay for them. Dreams they might not otherwise ever be able to fulfill if not for MasterCard facilitating the experience.

By associating their brand with these emotional moments, this campaign made – and continues to make – MasterCard iconic for all the right reasons.

Real-World Insights Inform Brand Strategy

A thoughtfully designed insights program enables you to explore your brand’s perceptions, value proposition, and market position. These insights are key to understanding one’s brand, optimizing brand strategy, and planning highly effective creative campaigns.

Our client DraftKings did just that. As the regulation of sports betting loosened in recent years, DraftKings found that while their customer base was broadening the market was also becoming more competitive.

They knew they needed to adjust their brand strategy as they expanded into the sports gambling space, but they were determined not to leave their existing fantasy sports customers behind in the process. So, they called on HawkPartners to help them understand who they are to their customers.

Over the course of 18 months, we conducted multiple phases of research to understand the role DraftKings plays in its customers’ lives, from hobbyists to high rollers. Once they had a clear understanding of that role, we tested various positionings to bring that role to life and build a brand within a rapidly developing, crowded industry at the forefront of innovation. Through qualitative deep dives and quantitative validation, we helped DraftKings sharpen that position and understand the best way to communicate with current customers and prospects.

As DraftKings Vice President of Brand and Sport Michael Shonkoff stated at the Advertising Research Foundation’s 2023 Creative Effectiveness event, HawkPartners “really helped us diagnose what our current status was and informed decisions we can make about sharpening the definition of our brand.”

Key Insights

Brand positioning and creative execution are at their best when companies understand every aspect of their brand and understanding how customers see your brand is a critical first step in the creative development process. A few best practices include:

  • A combination of qualitative and quantitative research can identify what differentiates a brand from its competitors and which messages resonate across all audience segments.
  • It pays to coordinate the development of brand strategy and creative rather than keeping them siloed.
  • A comprehensive research program that includes both existing and potential customers is valuable since both customer acquisition and retention are critical to long-term success.

Understanding who your customers are, and how they perceive your brand, provides the foundation for impactful campaigns and brand strategy.

To discuss positioning your brand to win, reach out to Rachel and Jesse.