The first question I ask in Brand Workshops is, “When you think of Volvo, what’s the first word that comes to mind?”

Invariably and without exception, participants reply, “Safety.”

Volvo = Safety is a Brand Concept – the core idea of the brand. In this case, it’s a concept that has been drilled into consumers’ minds through decades of marketing.

Other brand concepts include:

  • Chick-fil-A = No Beef (those cows)
  • Wal-Mart = Everyday Low Prices (no sales and discounts)
  • De Beers Diamonds = Last forever (just like love)
  • Fedex = Absolutely, positively reliable
  • United Airlines = Friendly skies
  • Apple = Friendly technology
  • The North Face = Expedition-grade (like I’m really going to the Arctic)

Some of these are actual tag lines (Everyday Low Prices) and others are just my descriptions. In every case, the brand concept is the core idea of the brand.

If you poke around the Insurance Institute Web site, you’ll discover a crash-test dummy who had a not-so-great day in a 2011 Volvo S40. The side impact crash resulted in a big owie. The great thing about a brand concept – once you establish it, facts don’t matter so much. You own it. The soccer mom seeking safety will still gravitate to the Volvo brand.

Interestingly, Volvo has dropped safety as the core idea of the brand. If you go to the Web site, mention of safety has disappeared altogether. Kaput, gone.

Instead, the headlines read: “Serenely Luxurious,” “Delight Your Senses,” “An Amplified Driving Experience,” “Redefining Luxury,” etc. Somewhere along the way (likely after the Great Recession), Volvo realized that soccer moms could no longer afford their cars. Their future hinged on repositioning the brand as a Swedish BMW. Good luck with that.

Last year Fedex introduced One Rate. The Postal Service has offered Flat Rate shipping for a decade, so how do you join the game 10 years too late? Fedex’sreliability brand position makes the case that if you want reliable flat rate, choose Fedex over USPS.

In the hierarchy of brand positioning, 1) the Brand Positioning Statement establishes the target customer, the customer’s need, and the brand’s unique differentiator in solving the need. 2) the tag line distills the positioning statement into a catchy phrase, and 3) the brand concept reduces it to a single idea. It lives at the top of the brand hierarchy.

Here’s an example of a brand positioning statement for Zipcar (as reported in Kellogg on Marketing by Tybout and Calder):

“To urban-dwelling, educated techno-savvy consumers, when you use Zipcar car-sharing service instead of owning a car, you save money while reducing your carbon footprint.”

Sounds like a nice sustainable idea. But, the Zipcar tag line is “Wheels when you want them.” The tag line implies convenience, not carbon footprint, so a bit of disconnect there. Looking at their site, I would describe the Zipcar brand concept ascar freedom.

A brand concept sets up a choice: Should we push convenience or environment? The product people want to push both. Brand people understand that you stand for one thing in the marketplace.

Brand concepts sound great, but they can be hard to live with. A brand concept demands that you exclude things that are off-brand. For example, we had a client with a fast food chain called Good Wraps (not the actual name). The client insisted on serving a Philly Cheese Steak on a hoagie roll. We pleaded with him to remove it. It was off-brand. But he wanted to capture that extra bit of revenue from people who might want a cheese steak sandwich for lunch.

Suppose you went into Chick-fil-A and spotted a burger on the menu. The offending beef would sink the entire brand position (yes, those cows). So Chick-fil-A made a brand decision to exclude the all-American passion, burgers.

A strong brand concept tells customers what you are about. We had fast-casual food client, Wing Zone who was losing stores and slipping against national brands like Buffalo Wild Wings. Using the Brand Story® approach, the Wing Zone brand was repositioned to sell “Flavor.” Customers became Flavorholics and the cooking process was christened Flavor Fuze. New flavor names and top-to-bottom rebranding delivered a dramatic turn-around as evidenced by strong international growth. International customers particularly connected to Flavor. The Wing Zone in Panama now has 86,000 likes on its Facebook page.

The urge to be all things to all people is strong – nobody wants to exclude potential customers. But when you focus a brand around a single concept, like-minded customers will engage with your brand.

Bruce Miller