To paraphrase branding expert Graham Robertson, “Do you represent your brand to the customer, or do you represent your customer to the brand?”

Confused? It’s an essential shift in your mindset, but one that can take you from a good marketer to a great one. Moreover, when you make the shift, you’ll start to create a brand that customers will love, not just buy because they will connect with the brand, perhaps even love it. Moreover, when customers love a brand, your profitability goes up; showing once gain why it is better to market on emotions instead of products.

Earlier this year we introduced and went through brand laddering at Casino Marketing Boot Camp. It was an eye-opening experience. Much like physical ladders can aid you in reaching higher, so can a brand ladder.

EYEING THE LADDER

Brand laddering traces its origins to the early 1980s as marketers looked to move beyond the marketing of products and to connect with customers. It is a method for modeling the mental and emotional processes customers inherently use to make a purchase decision—starting with the features, moving up to the benefits (of those features), and ultimately the emotional value customers gain. The process connects attributes to emotional motivations to elevate the brand from a collection of benefits to an emotional connection that puts your brand above all others.

Laddering can also aid you in determining the most compelling messages and imagery for your brand—something some marketers can often lose sight of. By exploring your brand’s ladder, you connect with customers in ways that can lead to loyalty, profitability and, in some cases, investor confidence.

If you ever studied Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you’ll find this process very familiar. While Maslow divided the hierarchy into the general categories of basic needs, psychological needs and self-fulfillment, brand ladders are divided by the rungs of attributes, functional benefits and emotional benefit. Some also add a social component. Attributes are self-explanatory as the features of the product. Functional benefits are why you’re differentiated in the market (or your unique selling proposition). Emotional benefits provide customers with a sense of purpose, while social benefits relate to the stature customers possess in the eyes of their social circle.

Why should casino marketing executives consider brand laddering? Well, according to the American Gaming Association (AGA), there are 979 casinos in the U.S. There are nearly 1 million slot machines in those casinos as well as numerous hotel rooms, players card programs, promotions, giveaways, casino buffets, steakhouses and quick-serve outlets. How do you differentiate yourself among the competition? How do you connect with someone enough for them to spend their entertainment dollars with you instead of the movie theater or bowling alley? Simply stated, brand laddering can help create the market differentiation needed to better compete in increasingly tighter marketplaces.

BUILDING THE LADDER

First, determine your ideal customer by examining your database and any research or customer contact stories.

Then, brainstorm all possible brand attributes and features, but focus on the ones you believe give you a competitive advantage—your strengths that are unique in the market. Take care to build that list of attributes and benefits from your customer’s perspective rather than your own. Keep in mind that often the things we put into place can be overlooked even if they are used by consumers. They may never mention them as an attribute or feature. Think of it like air—we never mention when we have it, only when it’s bad in some way.

Now your research team will have the framework they need for focus groups. Listen during your focus groups. For most casino customers, the experience and the sensory appeal may be the functional benefit they derive from your offering. In some cases, they can find a sense of connection as well. Take note of the words customers use in their communications or during focus groups and then start moving them into categories to find the functional benefits of your particular brand. As you work through focus groups, listen to what features they are mentioning and what they feel they get from them. Keep challenging the benefits until you can move into a rich zone of emotional space you can win with and own.

Emotional benefits can often fall into categories or zones. Beloved Brands (using Hotspex research) has identified eight emotional zones with corresponding emotional benefits. While the emotional zones may be somewhat universal, your research and customers may elicit additional benefits. Moreover, you may find a cluster of benefits for most casino customers, but how you deliver the benefits will vary, perhaps even from property to property in the same brand. Your winning positioning will come from identifying the uncommon denominator. The goal is to narrow down what consumers want and what you can do best.

Try not to reach for abstract emotional benefits or what Brandgym founder Davit Taylor calls “brand ego-tripping.” The now-famous Dove Campaign for Real Beauty fell into this trap early on. When the company initially developed a campaign to get women to stop judging themselves harshly, women were unimpressed. They found the campaign quite patronizing. The trap the brand fell into was its top-down approach taking the theory of beauty and wrapping it in the product. When they looked from the bottom up, they were able to reach the emotional elements because they started with the product and followed the ladder up to the emotions.

CLIMBING THE LADDER

Laddering can also aid in the introduction of new concepts or products. In 1975, no one knew what a dryer sheet was or how it would revolutionize everyday home laundry. Procter & Gamble wanted people to add squares of fabric to their dryers along with their wet clothes and needed to find a way to convince homemakers around the country. So, the company underwent the laddering process to understand how to introduce the product and create this new category. They started with the ingredients and easy-to-use sheet as their attributes. Then, they identified the functional benefit of the attributes which was wrinkle-free clothes. I mean, who wants wrinkled clothes? Bounce solved that problem. The functional benefit was their doorway into the shopping cart. As the product gained acceptance, the messaging moved up the ladder to continue placing the product higher in the customer’s minds through more substantial benefits. In their case, it was the benefit of attractive clothes (because they are wrinkle-free), up to the emotional benefit of “feeling pretty.” As the messaging moved up the ladder, Bounce could move their messaging away from the attributes that could (and were) easily copied to own a space in the consumer’s heart.

This process is the same one we used when Harrah’s became the first casino company to truly focus on branding. Though not a new product or concept, the company looked to find a unifying theme. In 2000, Harrah’s had an overall image campaign along with five regional “mini-campaigns” in addition to countless local themes. There was no clear message, and the leadership looked to discover it. They knew the notion of a brand could give them a leadership position in what was becoming a crowded market. Through months of research, we heard customers talk about all the things they liked and felt about their visits to Harrah’s.

We discovered our own attributes, such as Total Rewards and first-to-market slot games.

Then we looked at what those attributes meant to customers (or the functional benefits of those attributes).

Then we asked them why they cared about those benefits to discover the emotional benefits. On the last rung of our ladder, we discovered the core of the emotional connection to Harrah’s.

BENEFITS OF THE LADDER

Now that you’ve identified your attributes/features and reached your emotional benefits, you can use your ladder to guide the creation of your advertising and to provide insights to your agency partners. There is a hierarchy of customer motivations when they decide to research or purchase from you. Understanding the motivations can aid you in creating ads that resonate. Features and tangible benefits can be your sources of copy and messages, while the emotional benefits can guide you in selecting imagery that will evoke those benefits. Just keep in mind that functional benefits can be copied and cause customers to switch products or properties. It’s the emotion that can drive loyalty—had Bounce stayed on the wrinkle-free rung, they would’ve certainly lost market share to the copycats that subsequently entered the market.

The thing about a ladder is that you can always go higher. Don’t be satisfied with the lowest rung. When we open a new hotel or introduce a new slot machine, we tend to fall in love with our products and focus on attributes, but soon the competitor down the road has the same thing. Laddering forces us to stop talking to ourselves and start listening to the customer—something we can all stand to do more. Many marketers represent their brand to the customer; great marketers represent the customer to the brand.