Monthly Archives: March 2005

Beyond Brand Semantics

I took the rant on marketing semantics to my Business Week column today. I never imagined such a seemingly simple issue would have such legs, but the resistance I’ve gotten from some quarters–dismissiveness, anger, derision–is unusual. There are a lot of marketers out there who don’t want the boat rocked.

But the struggle over the meaning of Brand is only scratching the surface. There are many concepts in marketing that are equally vague or confused, or conveniently reinterpreted to fit each marketer’s understanding or expertise. Depending on who you’re talking to, Segmentation can mean either market segmentation or segmented pricing. Positioning can refer to a competitive market strategy, a marcom messaging strategy, or even brand image.

In a conversation, the multiple meanings of a word are usually stabiliized by context. If I say "grab the wheel", and we’re sitting in a car, you’ll know I mean the steering wheel. If we’re outside the car changing a flat, you’ll know I mean the tire. Using context, experience and inflection to determine what meaning of the word was intended doesn’t change the meaning of a concrete thing. A tire is still a tire, and a steering wheel is still a steering wheel. But what happens when the word is referring to something that is no more solid than an *idea*? What happens to the idea of segmentation, or positioning, or brand, when, through my own channels of experience–through context, inflection, etc–I interpret the meaning in a way that is different? What happens when I downright confuse one meaning with another, and then transmit that confused meaning to someone else?

In an age of Information, when we make our living as Knowledge Workers, what happens is that we fill our universe with static. Knowledge is shared through the use of language, and if the language isn’t sufficiently clear, it’s like we’re talking to each other over a bad connection. In the short run, it’s merely annoying–your clients or colleagues don’t fully understand what you’re saying. But in the long run it’s destructive. People who are not marketers, but who depend on interacting effectively with marketers, begin to lose confidence in the value of marketing because every conversation is slightly vague, slightly confusing–and more troubling still, the meanings of important concepts seem to change from person to person. That lack of clarity and credibility has become the brand image of marketing, and until we get clear in our communication, we stand little chance of improving it.

If you’re coming in from BusinessWeek, welcome. I’d really like to get more of a dialog going than a rant, so please drop a comment, if you would. Thanks for reading.

Social Networks

I had breakfast this morning with Antony Brydon, the CEO of Visible Path, to talk about the business application of social networks. Visible Path provides an Enterprise Software package that allows businesses to create their own contact networks, similar to online social networks like LinkedIn and Plaxo.

The discussion ranged far and wide, only touching the surface of some fascinating topics that warrant deep consideration–topics I’m planning to explore further in the near future. But the most important topic, from the standpoint of the business case for social networks, is the quantification of intangible assets to describe real market value. The notion is that among the intangible assets that enhance real market value, but don’t show up on the balance sheet–e.g. intellectual property, knowledge, business processes–one of the most powerful is human relationships.

Think of it this way: when you hire a sales person, one of the topline metrics of value is the depth and quality of their personal network. How big, how current, and how powerful is their Rolodex? The same concept is true for a business, but on a much larger scale. How extensive is the company’s network–with prospects, partners, regulators, financiers, etc–and how well are they using it to create real value, like products made channels built, deals closed? If you could map your network, place a value on the nodes of that network, and track some of the critical business functions that utilize that network, like lead generation, sales, and referrals, you’d be able to demonstrate an asset that generates value for the company, and reduces risk for investors because it moves a series of important processes into the light of day. That becomes value you can measure in the marketplace.

There’s a lot to explore in the uses and meanings of social networks, and I’ll be talking to Antony more in the future. Look for a column, or a podcast on this topic in the near future.

More Brand Definitions

My business partner pointed out "Exhibit B" in the ongoing fight over defining the meaning of "Brand". Over at Corante’s blog on branding there’s a discussion going on about the difference between "we companies" vs. "they companies". I’m not going to pick up that thread right now, because there’s something far more important to draw out of this discussion.

One of the blog authors, Jennifer Rice, who apparently has a deep resume in brand consulting for some big companies, and who makes some interesting observations about brand strategy, nevertheless says in an offhanded way what I’ve been arguing is a stake in the heart of the marketing profession. Here it is:

My definition of a brand is an idea in the minds of your customers… and that idea is formed by what you say and what you do.

Before we get to the dreaded ~semantic~ argument that so many marketers want to avoid like the plague, let’s just parse the framing of this definition. It is "My definition". Not "the definition". "My definition". What, exactly is the purpose of a "definition" if its meaning can be determined individually? How do you transfer knowledge about a thing, if the meaning of the thing can be arbitrarily open to interpretation?

To be fair and honest, I can’t throw any rocks at Jennifer Rice’s glass house, because I’m in one myself. I’m fairly certain if you go digging through my writing, you’ll find someplace where I’ve said "my definition of x is…" This isn’t about Jennifer Rice, it’s about marketers as a profession. We MUST stop treating such bedrock professional concepts as a blank page for waxing philosophical about meaning. I’m arguing that this is one of the major reasons why marketing is continuing to lose credibility–because it cannot consistently communicate an idea that is solid and immutable. And this is a profound irony. What is one of the most commonly cited attributes of a strong brand? Consistency across time and medium. Apparently we marketers don’t know how build equity for our brand.

Without rehashing all of the arguments about why Rice’s definition is derivitive (you can find one of the posts on this topic here) I’ll summarize the argument, stolen from Heidi Schultz, this way: There is a legal definition, and legal status for the concept of a brand. You own it. You can buy it and sell it. There are laws to protect it. Not one of these commercial facts applies to the concept of "an idea in the mind of your customer". Your brand is your logo, your name, your trade dress. Everything going on in the mind of your customer is derivitive and distinct. Call it brand image. Call it brand reputation. It is not your brand.

As an oversimplified analogy, someone might say "that Ferrari is my pride and joy". Is the Ferarri *really* an emotion? Of course not. You understand that without having to parse it. A Ferrari is a tangible object. It may influence your emotions. It may make you happy and proud to drive it. But your emotions are distinct entities that are influenced by other things too.

Same with a brand. You create a brand. You cultivate brand image and reputation. There are many things that effect brand image and reputation but that do not flow directly from your brand. There are social currents, historical events, cultural attitudes, economic trends–I’m sure someone, somewhere has drawn up an exhaustive list–that also have an impact on your brand image and reputation independent of any action you take. That’s why it’s useful and meaningful to consider them distinctly. If you require one single word, "brand", to carry the weight of a thousand ideas, it quickly loses its ability to convey anything of value. And if marketers today are in need of anything, it’s an ability to convey clear ideas with real value.

Positioning Relevance

I was driving home from a client meeting yesterday in the rain. It was one of those spring rains where it’s bright outside, but everything on the road is wrapped in vapor. It’s mesmerizing. You kind of recede into your head, watching the traffic, listening to the radio, but somehow away from it all. What a perfect time to listen to commercials. Really. You can meet them on their own intended wavelength, the frequency of sub-cognitive influence. You can pat the little vignettes of drama or comedy on the head and send them off to play, while welcoming the value proposition and positioning statements for a nice little chat. What is it you’d like to tell me? I’m listening.

So I’m listening to the commercials in this half-hypnotized state, and along comes a message from the accountants at Grant-Thorton. The commercial was unremarkable, it just kind of floated by, but the positioning pulled me out of my reverie. I wondered for a moment if I’d really heard what I thought I heard, but then they kindly repeated it so it left no doubt. Here it is. Remember, this is an accounting firm.

"Grant-Thorton. Passionate about the business of accounting."

Passion. Accounting. D-o-e-s  n-o-t  c-o-m-p-u-t-e. Error. Error. Format C:

I don’t know why it struck me as so absurd. I mean, maybe businesses really do feel they’re missing something with their dour and dispassionate bean-counters. Who needs rigor if it comes with rigor mortis? Maybe what all businesses are clamoring for is Accountants with Passion. Sing to me about my balance sheet, tell me little lies about performance, make love to the numbers you prancing pony. Yeah, that’s the ticket. I can just see the chorus line.

So the whole thing got me thinking of how many times I’ve come across businesses that embrace the notion of differentiation– ~Differentiate or Die~ –but have forgotten about the notion of relevance. It’s good to position yourself in a way that is unique. But it’s a whole lot more effective to position yourself in a way that is uniquely relevant to the goals of the consumer. Grant-Thornton may be the only accounting firm with passion. But in an era of increasing financial scrutiny, new regulations coming down the Sarbanes-Oxley pipeline, and scandal seeming to lurk around every corner, who cares about passion? Give me an accounting firm that knows what it’s doing and doesn’t make mistakes, and I’ll find passion with my wife, thank you very much.

What A Brand Won’t Do

You can have a big marketing budget, a big name spokesperson, a big event with huge publicity and emotional appeal, but if you’ve got a junky product, it won’t improve your sales. Witness today’s report of the Pontiac G6 debacle. Oprah Winfrey gave away 276 of these cars on a tear-jerking show that set the marketing world on fire. But, sales have dropped through the floor.

Art Spinella, an industry observer and marketer, summed it pretty succinctly:

Spinella said neither GM’s marketing department nor Winfrey can be blamed for the market performance of the G6.

"It’s one thing to have that kind of a major marketing coup, but you
need to back it up," said Spinella, who said he believes that the
vehicle is an underwhelming package in a competitive marketplace.


The prospect of using neuroscience to improve the practice of marketing is equally exciting and worrying. On one of their beta posts for a new blog on the Future of Marketing, The Institute for The Future offers some links to articles on the application of neuroscience to advertising. 

On the one hand, there’s a geewhiz factor to the notion of mapping the brain’s response to advertising, and using that data to shape more effective ads. There’s also an obvious ethical debate that will arise from perfecting the art of persuasion by science. Not to mention a legal one: Can you imagine what the defense of Big Tobacco would have been if they were using scientifically designed manipulation techniques to motivate buyers?

But beyond the obvious technological, political, legal and ethical questions–which will be the press fodder that boosts this topic into the mainstream–there are some practical business questions that always seem to get lost in the noise. Is there really a competitive advantage for most companies in diverting funds to manipulation technologies and away from just building better products and experiences?

One of the examples cited in the research is the mapping of brain patterns after the subject was exposed to a cola drink, without an associated brand, and then after. When just drinking samples of carbonated sugar water, the subject had little preference. But when sugar water was linked to a few cola labels, the brain patterns went off the charts in showing a preference for Coke. Great. Undoubtedly there’s something to learn from that. But will it help Pepsi create a more successful product?

You could compare the Coke response and the Pepsi response and draw the conclusion that Coke’s marketing, which is really the major substantive difference between the two brands, is just better, and Pepsi’s better improve. But any time you’re measuring a person, an organic brain, you can’t separate out the lifetime of baggage that comes with it. It may look like just a set of brain waves, which Pepsi could theoretically try to emulate by testing a new brand mix. But what you can’t see is the memory of drinking a Coke on a summer day at a family picnic. Or laughing so hard at the joke your best friend told one time at the ice cream shop when you were 10 that the Coke came streaming out of your nose. Those memories are anchored to the brand and inseparable from the brain waves that show preference in a lab. So what will Pepsi emulate?

Coke didn’t create those experiences, even if they effectively enshrine them in their advertising to enhance recall. They’ve had good, consistent marketing over the course of most people’s lifetime, and a long string of personal experiences have been attached to the brand. I’m not sure how knowing what the impact of those experiences look like in the shaping of preference-oriented brainwaves on a CRT scan will help Pepsi create a more successful product today. 

I can see the application of monitoring brain waves as a supplement to product response studies and focus groups,so that Pepsi can isolate the most appealing ad, and I suspect that’s probably the point. But I also suspect that isn’t sexy enough to push neuromarketing into the mainstream press and boost interest in the technology and the companies that create it. Far better to amaze and frighten us a little with the prospect that companies will be able to engineer desire from whole cloth. Just think of the consequences!

Branding Claptrap

Here is Exhibit A of the problem I’m addressing with the confused meaning of "Brand". A "marketing innovator" who posts a blog but doesn’t identify himself, takes issue with my support of a tangible definition for the meaning of brand.

Kenton of Marketonomy wants
to reclaim the term "brand" for the advertising realm.

I’d be curious to know on what basis that judgement is made, since nothing could be further from the truth. I want to reclaim the term "brand" for the rational realm, and distinguish it from the other derivative brand concepts that are important but *different*.

He’s argument is
well-thought-out but wrong. It is meaningful to distinguish between
‘brand image’ and ‘brand experience’ but in the end, a company has to
live more in the derivative world of brand consequences than in the
artistic world of brand impressions. Speaking as someone who’s worked
for many companies where the advertising was at devastating odds with
the real experience of customers in the company, I think we stand to
gain more as marketers by insisting that ‘brand’ = the total customer
experience based on encounters with the company.

It’s funny, because I used to argue the same thing. In fact, if you look at my theory on Touchpoint Mapping, the whole premise was that the only way to try and bring the entire breadth of the brand experience into the realm of the tangible was to understand the practical meaning of brand to be the entire array of Touchpoints a company uses to create a relationship between the company and the customer. Brand Experience is *critically* imortant to the success of any company. BUT IT IS NOT BRAND. You own your brand. You do not own your customer’s experience. One is something you create. The other is something you cultivate.

It blows my mind that so many marketers refuse to accept such a basic semantic necessity as clarifying words and meanings so that we don’t confuse each other by talking in circles about what a Brand is. It’s a relationship. No. It’s a bond. No. It’s an experience. No It’s an image. No. It’s a promise.

What marketers stand to gain from most is Clarity.

Brand Dialog

I’ve had my feet held to the fire today over my column on the meaning of brand–which
is as it should be. Don’t ever take the word of a marketer at face
value. Some of my critics took issue with the fact that I was flogging
a ~semantic~ argument. Semantic apparently meaning "unworthy of
consideration", rather than "a useful exploration of meanings".

But some of the criticisms were useful. One of the more interesting discussions took place via email with
Justin Mink, a brand marketer from With his permission, I’m
posting the dialog here. 

Continue reading

Article Updates

A number of clients and colleagues have asked me to keep them posted on new articles I write in various places around the Web. Instead of spamming everyone every time a new article comes out, I’m going to leave it up to the convenience of an RSS subsciption on this blog.  When I publish something somewhere else, I’ll post a link here, and if you subscribe you’ll get the link. If not, you don’t have to endure my spambot.

I posted a new column last week at Business Week. I’m embarrassed to say it’s the first column in over two years I had rejected on the first round by my editor. He said I was becoming too academic and killing my audience. Ouch. So I cut out the jargon and reposted it. Then I cleared out the carbon with a good old-fashioned rant that will go up this week.

I published my first piece as a Business Intelligence analyst-at-large with the Canadian firm TEC. It digs into the underlying market drivers for BI software. The site requires free registration–but it’s well worth it. The site is heavy on substance, if a little short on style. I’ll be doing monthly articles there, with a look at Sarbanes-Oxley next.