This is the third in our “What Leading Brand Thinkers Really Think” series, in which we try to drill down past packaged “thought leadership” and examine what today’s essential thinking is (or isn’t), as presented by leading branding firms.

In this installment we talk to Andrew Pierce, President of Prophet, US, about the Brand Relevance Index, a relatively new effort to extend and apply the work of Prophet Vice Chairman David Aaker to a wider practice (for a look at the theory beyond the practice, refer to Aaker’s book Brand Relevance).

Brandingmag: To begin, Andrew, can you give us a quick recap of what brand relevance is, why it matters… and why anyone should care that there is now an index to track it?

Andrew Pierce: Dave [Aaker] birthed the idea of relevance … and we truly believe, given the science now under brand relevance, that brands that are relevant are much more powerful and have a bigger impact on affecting people’s lives, than brands that are just differentiated. It took us several years to get to the right science on how to define relevance, and then to go out and collect the data and start reporting on it.

Bm: You characterize relevant brands with what I would call “by now familiar” marketing exhortations: be customer obsessed, be ruthlessly pragmatic, be distinctively inspired, and fourth, pervasively innovative. What new light does BRI shed on the importance of these factors?

AP: I think this is the first time that a company’s gone out and actually surveyed consumers on this topic that includes all four of those pillars. In fact, when we began the work we had some hypotheses about what these true pillars of relevance would be, but we used data and statistics from the work with the consumers to figure out which pillars actually mattered most.

“What we’re starting to see is companies moving beyond just obsessed to empathic.”

If you go through the four of them, customer obsessed is not a new concept, to your point. But what we’re starting to see is companies moving beyond just obsessed to empathic. The more empathy we see strong brands and companies have for their customers, the more powerful that idea of being customer obsessed is. It’s not just putting the customer at the center, but it’s truly starting to live and breath and be in the customer’s shoes.

Ruthlessly pragmatic … the combination of being pervasively innovative and ruthlessly pragmatic (those sometimes can be dichotomous) … we believe that brands that can find the right way to do both of those things, to always be very innovative, but innovative in a way that’s practical, can actually add value to a consumer’s life, or generate revenue for a company, or both.

And I think distinctively inspirational often times gets overlooked. But if a brand isn’t inspiring to a consumer these days, then there is an element of relevance that falls down.

Take Yahoo as an example. Yahoo is a very differentiated brand: they have very good content, they bought brands like Tumblr, they built out a portfolio, they offer distinctive content — but it’s not relevant. In our minds that’s the difference between having brands that are built up on two or three of these pillars as opposed to all four of them.

Bm: When you look at how David Aaker defines it in his book, Brand Relevance, he’s talking about really making yourself so relevant, by carving out subcategories, that you own the turf. Is that relevance or is that targeted dominance? Is it innovative segmentation?

“For brands to be relevant they have to have specific purpose and meaning.”

AP:  That’s a good question. We are big believers that for brands to be relevant they have to have specific purpose and meaning.

We also do a lot of work for clients where, to create relevance, they have to find subcategories where they dominate. We’ve turned that into demand acceleration, finding places in a client’s portfolio where they can uniquely accelerate demand in the marketplace.  Sometimes that’s serviced best by creating a brand, sometimes it’s serviced by not creating a brand – it can just be part of the source brand, or the master brand.

The idea of subcategory dominance is absolutely true. It’s what clients do need to find in order to drive and accelerate demand, but also, to be relevant in that space sometimes you need to create sub-brands, or new brands.

Bm:  Is the need for subcategory dominance then contextual to a particular brand, or merely an ideal state, if you will?

AP: I think brands that have fallen out of relevance have lost their center of gravity … or the true understanding of the subcategory that they dominate. Say you’re in the hotel industry and you’ve left that subcategory open, only to have companies like Airbnb step in, dominate, and suddenly define your brand as irrelevant.

In the value chain of where you play and the business category you play in, you have to find places to go … You have to create those subcategories, and then you have to figure out, “How am I best able to dominate there? Is it by creating a new brand, or can I actually have the master brand play a role that allows me to be there?”

“Brands that have fallen out of relevance have lost their center of gravity.”

Or go back a few years, back to the Intel days. Intel determined that the power in the computer – and what customers really cared about – was performance and speed, and that’s what they owned. Suddenly the power shifted from the computer itself to the power that’s generated within it, which is the Intel chip. This gave them license to say, “Hey consumer, it’s not just about the keyboard and the motherboard, et cetera. It’s all about the speed and performance which comes to you from Intel.” Shifting the category relevance is a way that you can do that, and that’s what Airbnb and Uber and Intel have done over the years.

Bm: It sounds like you’re basically making a case that brands really have no choice but to pursue this, because someone else will disrupt them out of their own space.

AP:  That’s absolutely true. I think, again, if you go back to the four pillars that we’ve defined around relevance, pervasive innovation is the one that’s going to carry the day over the years.

If you look at any category that we work in, whether it’s financial service or CPG or healthcare, the pressure to innovate is incredible. Innovation isn’t just around new products, it’s around services and experiences and different ways to develop and deliver things to customers. Pervasive innovation to me is what’s driving the need for all companies to stay relevant – because if someone’s going to out-innovate you in some part of your activity or your value chain, then you by default can become less relevant, if not irrelevant, over time.

Bm: One question that popped to mind reading through the Brand Relevance Index and reviewing Dave Aaker’s book, Brand Relevance, was this notion and emphasis on forming categories and subcategories. Can you get trapped in too much of a brand-centric mindset, and not enough of a customer-centered orientation, by trying to create a brand architecture for yourself that is perfectly own able?

AP: Obviously, in today’s digital age, where brands live in ecosystems that are not well defined, in a day where brands are actually experiences and not so much things that we can control, the world has become much more of an overlapping ecosystem … but there’s still a role for companies.

Consider an auto company like Ford. Ford has determined that, even in this multimedia and digital world, for them to successfully play in the premium end of the auto market — well, the Ford brand can’t stretch that far. There’s still purpose in having Lincoln in the portfolio to play that role.

While in the old days you might have created an architecture that said, “Here’s specifically where Lincoln begins and Ford ends, and vice versa,” if you look at how they actually build and manage those brands today they’re co-sold in dealerships, they’re co-marketed in digital marketing. There are ways that you can try to create separateness because you’ve got a specific offer that’s designed for a different set of customers, which requires a separate brand. But the way brands are managed these days is fundamentally different than it was ten or fifteen years ago.

Bm: Shifting for a moment from the concept of relevance to the Brand Relevance Index itself … how many consumers did you query?

AP: Ten thousand consumers, globally. Four hundred brands across twenty seven industries … but we did not focus on the B2B sector in this first round.

Bm: Since you have, as a company, been pursuing the philosophy of brand relevance for some time, were there any surprises to you out of this survey?

AP: There sure were. I think if you look at the top three [brands ranked for relevance], for instance, it’s probably no great surprise that Microsoft and Apple and Samsung are one, two, and three in the relevance survey.

However, we were anticipating that perhaps Google and Facebook would be in that mix as well. But when you unpack and understand specifically why Google and Facebook fell down in their particular perceptions in this study, it was because of issues around privacy and trust. Those are strong underpinnings to the idea of having strong relevant brands.

The other brands that popped to the top that we thought were quite interesting are names like Band-Aid. Band-Aid is an incredibly powerful brand. It’s been around for, what, a hundred years at least? The way that Band-Aid has been able to continue to stay relevant is by connecting what it stands for with moms, and in finding ways to connect to kids in particular that are the use cases for the Band-Aids themselves:  dirt, cold, wet, et cetera. They’ve continued to find ways to stay relevant in the minds of moms and kids and that’s why they’ve popped to the top of the index.

Bm:  Okay. You’ve got this perspective about relevance, you’ve got some learning about it. What do you hope businesses will do with it?

“Relevance isn’t something you do once, or a differentiation you create once, but relevance is an ongoing, living and breathing idea.”

AP: [First, we want] marketers to understand that relevance isn’t something you do once, or a differentiation you create once, but relevance is an ongoing, living and breathing idea that is going to put pressure on you to continually find ways to stay relevant. That pressure is one thing that we want to make sure people understand — that relevance is not just a point-in-time thing.

Secondly, back to the Google and Facebook issues–-where we were able to “decompose” [their situation] and understand why they weren’t top of the index … We want companies to [understand] that there are ways that you can take your brand and decompose relevance into its parts and therefore come up with strong action plans on how to improve it.

Bm: In terms of how this all plays out in the real world, do clients tend to know they have a relevance problem, or is there a pervasive cluelessness about this?

AP:  I don’t know about pervasive cluelessness.  But I also don’t think that clients come to us saying, “We think we have a relevance problem.” I think more often than that it’s the classic, “We have a growth problem. We have a sales problem.”

If, for instance, I’m in the life insurance category, everything’s commoditized, products are commoditized, I lack differentiation. But really, if you look at some of the more powerful life insurance companies and what they’re going through, they’re trying to redefine relevance through the lens of not just product, but also, “How do I actually engage customers in new and different ways?”

Bm:  Where do employees fit in the relevance equation here?

AP:  We haven’t studied that. Although outside of the relevance index itself Prophet espouses, especially in service based business, that much of the ability to deliver on a strong brand promise involves engaging your employee base. Having highly relevant brands and ideas for employees to aspire to is a critical part of delivering a service-based value proposition.

“Having highly relevant brands and ideas for employees to aspire to is critical.”

Bm: Can you be a bit of a fortune teller for a moment?  This is a B2C survey, and you say you may do B2B in the future. Which of your current findings would you think would apply in a B2B realm?

AP:  We actually think that the four pillars do translate to the B2B world — and many in our client base are B2B companies or B2B2C companies. We’re quite confident that when we go about doing the B2B  part of this study we will see many parallels in terms of what drives and creates relevance: customer obsession, pervasive innovation, pragmatism (although pragmatism may get in the way of inspiration, so we may see some trade-offs between how inspiring this purchase is that I’m making versus how pragmatic it is).

Bm:  And one last question, we in the branding-marketing-advertising industry are good at giving advice to others, while not always heeding it ourselves. Is the brand relevance philosophy, with its the four key pillars, finding a home in how you run Prophet?

AP:  Absolutely – we’ve used the idea of relevance in probably three or four ways. One, we continually think about what we need to do to deliver world class strategies, designs, and answers for clients. In order to come up with those ideas we need ourselves to be pervasively innovative. We need to continue to innovate how we’re going to source new ideas for clients, how we do customer research for instance, or how we use data and analytics. We’re constantly using a lens of innovation in figuring out the what we do for clients.

We also apply it to how we do our craft. How we deliver our engagements for clients has changed dramatically than when I started in this business twenty some odd years ago. We’ve taken the idea of creating much more experience-based learning for clients, even CEOs of major Fortune 500 companies — and we’re finding that strategies stick better if you can make them more experiential.

Also I think the pragmatism is what comes through in how we plan and forecast our year, every year. We have a very deliberate planning process, so we’re very pragmatic about how we think about how to build our business.

The Brand Relevance Index is quite different than others out there. There’s no black box element to it. It’s very consumer centered … and we’re quite proud to finally be out there talking about it.

Bm:  Andrew Pierce, President of Prophet in the U.S., thank you very much.

AP:  Thank you.