I’m humbled. Exactly a week after pondering the slippery meaning of the word "brand", I picked up a copy of Marketing Management–a peer-reviewed journal put out by the American Marketing Association, and found Heidi Schultz’s clear, concise and imminently practical definition of the brand concept. In two pages she manages to nail down the scope of the word, clear the confusion of "brand ownership" between company and consumer, and take the marketing profession to task for failing to wisely discern the true meaning of customer-centricity.
The article is well worth the cost of the magazine–but getting a copy isn’t easy. The AMA site provides the archives online, but while they let you register for free (with lots of personal information), they don’t tell you until after you’re registered that you need to have a subscription. So, I’m going to try and find a way to get a copy to post without running afoul of the AMA.
The crux of Heidi’s argument is that a brand should be understood as a fairly concrete thing–comprising names, terms, signs, symbols, designs, or combinations of these things, intended to identify the goods and services of one seller and differentiate them from another. There are clear laws that govern the intellectual property rights of a brand owner, bestowing upon the owner the right to sell and license a brand, and protecting those rights against infringement.
Heidi argues that this concrete definition of a brand should not be confused with the associations a consumer attaches to the brand based on their consumer experience. She distinguishes that concept as "brand image", including all the intangibles associated with it: what the brand promises, what it represents, how it makes consumers feel, etc. Clearly a company has an interest in influencing the brand image, but they can’t control it. They can, however, control the brand–their tangible, protected property–and they are empowered by the law to do so.
Her argument takes the concept of brand out of the realm of fuzzy logic and, in so doing, exposes what she sees is a resistance on the part of marketers to submit to this level of clarity because of the accountability such clarity brings:
"Why subject brand budgets to such scrutiny when it’s easier to obscure the issue and state that the brand belongs to the customer and we are simply the stewards? Isn’t it just easier to say we want to measure brand success in communication terms, such as customer awareness, perceptions, and preference–not in actual financial value creation?"
I wish the rest of the Marketing Management magazine were as clear and incisive as this article. Unfortunately, a companion piece on the death of the 4 Ps seems rooted in exactly the kind of muddled marketing Ms. Schultz is arguing against. I’ll be taking that on next week in Business Week.