How to Build a 21st Century Brand

Companies and marketing experts share lessons on how to keep up with evolving consumer expectations.

The importance of a company's brand identity and messaging strategy takes on a new meaning among today's technology empowered consumers. Armed with more information and opportunities to engage with brands than ever before, consumers' expectations are on the rise. And whereas marketers were used to a one-way communication with customers, they are now challenged to deliver a brand message that resonates with customers who have the ability to influence brand perceptions.

As consumer demographics and market demands evolve, it's critical for brands to keep up with these changes. One such company trying to evolve with consumer demands is The name White Pages usually evokes memories of the pages in the phone book that contained the phone numbers of residents. however, is an unaffiliated business that was founded by a Stanford college student, Alex Algard, in his dorm room in 1997, and provides the contact information of individuals and businesses.

"The biggest misconception that people have about our business is they think we are associated with local phone books, but we're not," says CMO Kevin Flaherty. "We are a Big Data business that digitized the print database concept." has assembled a database of more than 300 million verified identities from publicly available and user submitted data. It receives more than 50 million monthly unique visitors, about 15 million monthly users on its mobile app, and processes more than 2 billion searches annually. In addition, the company launched a B2B offering called WhitePages Pro last year. added a business-facing offering when it noticed "some people were looking up hundreds of names and addresses on our site," explains Flaherty "and we realized they were companies trying to confirm phone numbers and addresses to ensure things like FedEx trucks were going to the right locations."

Flaherty declined to say how many B2B clients the company serves, but noted that more than 40 percent of the company's search traffic comes from businesses. competes with other data providers on the strength of its brand, Flaherty says, which has helped the company draw customers from its B2C side to its B2B offering.

"For nearly 20 years we were solely a consumer company," he notes. "Now as we transition to being both, people are finding us on the consumer side and then transitioning into a B2B relationship." The company, Flaherty adds, has also learned that it needs to provide a "seamless experience" for both sides of the business.

"Customers don't care how we're organized internally and so we have to create a natural transition between the consumer side and business side," he says. "That's not easy and my biggest recommendation to other companies is make sure you nail the integration between services or you'll lose your customers."

Companies must also stay attuned to perceptions of their brand and changes in their customer base, notes Chris Trick, senior vice president of marketing and business development for ERA Real Estate. The 43-year-old company has about 3,000 offices and more than 30,000 agents worldwide, but it realized that it needed to revamp its brand when poll results showed that consumers viewed the realtor positively, but also considered it old-fashioned. "There have been some fundamental changes in the industry since we introduced our logo," Trick says. "Customers are more empowered and they've changed; Millennials now represent the largest cohort of people and the way they interact with brands is different, which we needed to reflect."

In addition to updating the company's logo with new fonts and colors last year, ERA Real Estate revamped its website with a responsive design and created a mobile app. Agents and brokers welcomed the changes and used it as an opportunity to start conversations with customers to tell them about the updated brand.

In addition, the company saw an uptick in mobile traffic. Within a few weeks after it launched its redesigned website and app, mobile traffic increased from 30 percent to 40 percent and represents 50 percent of the company's total traffic on weekends, Trick notes.

The increase in mobile traffic makes sense, Trick adds, given how many people use their phones to quickly look up information. "If someone sees a house that's for sale, they can use their phone to find information about it on our site or app," he says. "That's why it's important to research your customers' behaviors early and often. The best strategy is only as effective as it can be executed in the market."

Understanding your customers' preferences and what they value about your business is important, agrees Kevin Neff, business and marketing consultant and author of the book, The Secret to Winning Big.

Neff points to JC Penney as a cautionary tale of what can happen when your brand is not aligned with your customers' preferences. Three years ago JC Penney hired Ron Johnson, who had spearheaded the innovative customer experience of Apple's retail stores, to work his magic at its stores but things quickly went awry.

Upon taking the helm as JC Penney's CEO, Johnson overhauled the retailer's brand by modifying the pricing, merchandise, and store layout and design. "JC Penney was known for having great sales and store busters; that was part of their brand," Neff notes. "But when Johnson came on board, he got rid of the sales and said we'll just have great low prices every day."

The problem, Neff continues, was "without sales, there wasn't any urgency and it wasn't the experience the brand was known for and so sales hit the floor." Approximately 17 months after being hired, Johnson was out and several months later the troubled retailer closed 33 underperforming stores.

"Consumers today are inundated with information and so brands have to work harder to stand out," Neff says. "Successful brands like Apple create demand and urgency along with a good user experience that resonates with their customers."

The right CMO is critical for delivering a strong brand experience, notes Caren Fleit, senior client partner and leader of the Korn Ferry Global Marketing Center of Expertise. "CMOs run the gamut from being focused on branding and communications to data and analytics," she says. "When companies tell us they need a new CMO, we'll try to peel back the brand to understand what's going on in the business and where a CMO can help."

Fleit explains that a strong chief marketing officer understands both the creative and analytic sides of a business and the various touch points that a customer has with the company. "Having a balance of capabilities is important for juggling all the factors that a CMO or anyone in a leadership role needs to be cognizant of and can lead to more innovative results."