Hotels also base their brands on hospitality, since there isn’t much else to differentiate one clean bed from another. Retail stores distinguish themselves by the range of goods they stock, but the best ones also know that hospitality is what puts a store’s brand on a higher level. (The best retail chains have managed to apply their brands to the very products they sell: clothing chains such as Gap, H&M, Benetton, Mexx, and Mango are essentially extending a hospitality brand to sweaters and socks.)

At the heart of any hospitality brand are a well-designed environment and well-trained staff. The environment is the relatively easy part; it only needs to be solved once. Staff training is a continuous challenge, even at the best-run chains. Once staff are trained, they need to be motivated to embody the brand promise every day. Some restaurants are too cool to ask their staff to smile; but McDonald’s promises free food to any customer who isn’t greeted with a smile. Other ways in which staff become part of the hospitality brand include being well informed about the products they’re selling, acting out the brand personality, being helpful when customers have a complaint, and passing customer feedback along to managers who can fix things.

A brand is not going to overcome basic problems like bad food, lumpy mattresses, unstylish goods, or careless staff, but it can distill the experience of enjoying good food, comfy furniture, attractive merchandise, and attentive staff into an essential idea, different from the competitors, and present that idea to customers in a desirable way.

Financial services brands must do one thing better than any other brands—inspire trust. This was once accomplished through naming (First National City Bank sounds like an institution worthy of trust) and through architecture (imposing facades giving the impression of strength and longevity). Nowadays banks use subtler forms of image building. In addition to trust, competence, and permanence, a financial brand must stand out in a crowded field, encourage clients to diversify, and most of all, to break off relationships with competing banks.

Geico, an American insurance firm, offered a high level of efficiency and personal phone service at a cost well below other firms. They realized they could do better with a stronger brand image. Using humorous ad campaigns, including one with a talking gecko, Geico began pushing the catchy claim that “15 minutes could save you 15 percent” and “we just want to save you money.” But the brand goes beyond humorous advertising. A human, not an automated system, answers the phone, and the service is efficient. Plenty of brands have funny ads; Geico’s not only provide humor, they also make a relevant point about the brand benefits.

The ads of one competitor protest “No cute talking lizards, just lower rates,” but the competitor’s weak branding only serves to keep Geico uppermost in customers’ minds. The competition may offer lower rates, but the brand is uninspiring.