What Exactly Is A Brand?

I’ve been writing in my column for Business Week about the changing nature of business valuation and its impact on the practice of marketing. In my discussions with Jonathan Knowles from Brand Finance, we got into an interesting sidetrack on the slippery meanings of "brand".

The branding meme has had a major revival over the past few years, due in part to the rise of the Internet and the entirely new medium in which brands can be built. There have been endless pontifications on the importance of brands, the meaning of brands, the value of brands. Some of it is enlightening; too much of it is snake oil. Everyone needs a brand. Everyone is a brand. Brand… Is.

The whole dialog is as close as marketers come to a philosophy about their work–the meaning of marketing as an endeavor–and I think they get a little light headed. Yes, marketing has a fascinating psycho-social component, but in the end, marketers are paid to create value. What they forget is that value in business has a bottom-line metric–ie: I’m glad you find your work culturally significant, but what are you doing for my cashflow?

What I appreciate about Knowles is that he is both insightful and grounded in pragmatics. Knowles asserts that the goal of a brand is to create more successful businesses. Somehow I think that point is too often missed in actual practice. Specfically, he says, the creation of customer value is what gives brands the opportunity to create financial value–or what marketers call the price premium that well-branded products can command. But what does that tell us about what the word "brand" really means?

Historically, marketers have often defined brand as a promise of quality–something created by a company and handed over to the customer. Advertisers came along and tweaked that idea, calling brand a set of associations in the mind of the consumer–something owned by the consumer and shaped through manipulation. When the Internet took off, we started hearing about brand as an experience, something more than just a promise or a set of associations, something more alive. But when you push on any one of these concepts they get a little squishy.

Okay, brand is a promise, an association, an experience, a reputation even. But how do you invest a million dollars in a promise? How do you measure the equity of an experience? The truth is, you’re investing in something that implies a promise, or builds a reputation, and all of those things–whether you’re talking about customer service, or equipment, or intellectual property–those things have their own names; you wouldn’t call them brands. And, as Knowles is showing in his work on brand valuation, you don’t directly measure a brand as much as you measure the effects of a brand–how much you invest in activities that build brand, for example, or how much of a premium people are willing to pay. The actual thing itself, brand, is still slipping out of our grasp.

If you start with the earliest meanings of the concept, its advent is the notion of ownership. "I own this." But even here there are some interesting shadings. Why be so interested in asserting ownership? It could be a statement of territory, "this is mine", or of creation; "I made this", or even of responsibility "I am accountable for this". In the simplest terms, when you go back to cowboys burning a mark on their cattle, it’s really a clerical purpose. When the big cattle drives inevitibly mixed together, you had to be able to tell which animals were yours.

The point is that the brand is not the creator, and it is not the created. It’s a tangible symbol of the relationship between the creator and the created. Okay, that’s easy enough, if a little pedantic. What’s interesting to me is how the meaning evolves once you move away from the utility of the concept to the ripples of effect that mark any transaction between a creator and a consumer by way of an object. Now it is the experience of the consumer that adds a new layer of meaning to the concept of brand. In a sense, the product is now a proxy for the relationship between the creator and the consumer–"this product is the distillation of my value to you"–and the brand is… What?

Well, the product isn’t the brand, the creator isn’t the brand, and the brand is no longer just a tangible symbol of the relationship between the creator and the created, it’s now a "container" for the experience of the consumer. And this is pretty much where I sit at this point. This is a really clunky way to say it, and I need to work on this, but to me, a brand is a conceptual container that emanates, planned or not, from the creation of something of value that is transferred from its creator to a consumer. The container is shaped by the creator, but the contents of the container are created by the consumer. And at the end of the day, the value of the container is a function of both its shape–it’s ability to invite, suggest, contain and label the experience of the consumer, especially as unique from other experiences–and its contents, which is the experiences and associations consumers actually accrue to the container. The container must be created in a way to maximize its potential contents, as well as the ability to transfer contents from one consumer to other–ie: providing a container that’s already partially filled.

Is this a penetrating glimpse into the mundane, or does it have any incisive value? You tell me. I’ll say one thing, I wish I could take this grammar school class today. It might resolve a lot of my questions.

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