How to draw an analogy between freeride snowboarding and brand building. In this blog post I want to talk about the two biggest passions of my life. In doing so, I'm going to show how the two are similar, in ways that might not be obvious at first glance.
Before joining Futurice as a brand and marketing designer, I spent my winters finding good snow and competing around Europe as a freeride snowboarder. Now my passion is to create coherent and memorable brand experiences, where offline and online form a sweet bond together.
Imagination is the key
Freeride snowboarding is recognised as a competitive sport, and the contest format is very simple: Line choice, air&style (referring to jumps/tricks), fluidity, control, and technique are the five criteria by which freeriding is judged. There‘s a start gate at the summit and a finish gate at the bottom. Competitors use their imagination to make the best of the natural terrain features on the mountainside. The best run down wins: easy. But what does this have to do with branding? Imagination is a crucial ability also in brand building. Great brands are born from unique ideas fueled by great imagination.
Just like in freeride competitions, in branding you can also play it safe, but then you won’t really stand out from the crowd. Or you can take a calculated risk and win big… or lose big. The perceived benefits derived from a product or service can be represented in consumers’ minds in unintended ways. For example for a luxury brand symbolic associations and perception of exclusivity is crucial. The increased accessibility of a luxury product or service threatens the image of exclusivity. What used to be perceived as luxury has gone too “mainstream”. Therefore you need to choose your strategy carefully and adapt it wisely. The magic in taking calculated risks is to have a realistic relationship with yourself and with your brand and your abilities to evaluate the risk. Of course you are trying to maximise the probability of success at the same time. No matter if you are a freeride athlete or a brand manager, every single element in your performance should provide a coherent experience for your audience. Let's go back to the five freeriding criteria I mentioned earlier. Can we apply these wholesale to branding as well?
Style is a crucial judgment criteria in freeriding. Some riders have more than others. The same applies to branding. Consumers are the judges of your branding efforts, and the brand design is your style. If you have a good style you may gain few extra points from the judges. Style is linked with jumping: jumping is the very reason that freeride competitions are so exciting. You ask why? Because it’s something you can’t fake - what you see is what you get. Style and aggression play a huge part in jumping. In freeriding you’ll get extra points for jumping big and showing you know where you are at all times. You need to be performing with full control before, during and after the jump. Just like your customers might appreciate a clear personal brand message that is also authentic and allows them to emotionally connect with your brand.
Line choice is the path a freerider chooses to take down the mountain. The judges need to pay special attention to how unique, imaginative and difficult the route is compared to other riders. Line choice is like a brand journey. By brand journey I mean all the brand elements that must be there when someone consumes your offer. It is the design of the brand experience that you are trying to offer for your audience. Freeride athletes are the brand managers of their very own unique brand; themselves. Line choice is being “designed” in advance during a face check, a visual inspection through binoculars of the contest area found on the mountainside. Participants can’t ride the face of a mountain in question before the contest. Athlete brands or branded products and services which are able to be original and add some wow-factor score the highest.
The idea behind fluidity criteria is pretty simple. If you hesitate or lose your pace, you will lose points. Brands, in order to keep up the pace, need to create continuous experiences across all marketing channels by delivering the right content at the right time. It is all about learning to know who your customers are, what they like and catering to them. You need to optimise the content for the right device when customers want it. But what is the right content and when is the right time? Create tailored experiences by providing personalised deals. This type of personalisation is only possible with a powerful analytics solution that collects the right data and lets you visualise how that data is connected to engagement and customer behaviour.
When it comes to control in freeriding, the question goes: was the run under control even on rough terrain and after big jumps? In branding, organizations have control over their brand to some extent, but in the end it is all about entering into conversation with your customers who co-construct the brand meaning. This happens in a social discourse.
Technique and control go hand in hand. Poor technique will be sanctioned only if it leads to control issues. A rider with personal technique which might not be academic, will not be penalized if they are totally in control. In branding there are tons of ways to build a brand. You just need to choose the right technique. In your questing after a successful branding strategy, above all, remember to ask yourself one thing: am I coherent across all brand touchpoints?
The secret ingredient
Several years as a freeride athlete have given me enormous amount of knowledge, skills and abilities, which can be applied in business context. These include quality awareness, goal-orientedness and proactiveness. Being a freeride athlete is a sweet mixture of controlling your body and mind, but, above all, you need to follow your intuition. It’s the secret ingredient, that helps you to put the pieces together on the mountains and in the business world.