Brand Dialog

by Chris Kenton on March 16, 2005

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 USATODAY.com. With his permission, I’m
posting the dialog here. 

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I understand the delineation you are making between the two (or many) schools of thought regarding the definition of a "brand", but you really didn’t give any information about why/how confusing the real definition of a brand with its derivatives will lead to misguided marketing strategies.

Care to explain further?

Thanks!

Justin Mink
Brand Marketing Project Lead
USATODAY.com

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Justin–

Good point. The problem with writing in 900 words is that I have to build week to week, and I can miss the trees sometimes for the forest.

The problem is first one of clarity and communication. Marketers know what they mean. They know how important image, relationships, trust, etc., are to the customer. They know how critical consistency and differentiation are to building market share. What they don’t know is how to communicate that importance, or how to demonstrate its value in terms that investors or a board understands. They lose credibility when bedrock definitions of the craft are so muddled that you can’t even get a clear and consistent call on the meaning of marketing from the AMA.

The second problem is that many, many marketers *don’t* know what they mean. They’re just as confused as anyone by the changing definition of marketing and brand in the midst of chaotic changes in technology, channels and competition. They grasp at the straws held out by gurus who come along and say, "Look, brand is X". They allow themselves to believe the new thing replaces the old–that it’s no longer about one thing, it’s now about another thing, rather than understanding it’s an evolving concept that builds on the cornerstone of the past. I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve worked with who have been led by the nose from one trend to another, and completely failed to build a strong and sustainable marketing foundation based on basic fundamentals. They’re all chasing "customercentricity" now, without even understanding the ramifications of relative value among different customers.

The third problem is that some marketers are resisting the tide of accountability and metrics by muddying the waters of brand definition to place the real value on things that are difficult to measure. Rather than trying to understand the market forces in finance and management that are pushing marketing into a corner, rather than educating themselves, they respond by attacking the quaint bean-counting notion of trying to measure something like "trust" or "relationship". There is certainly, undoubtedly, unmistakably truth to the notion that some things of value just can’t be measured with a yardstick, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t struggle to wrap your arms around it and try.
That’s how we learn.

So… Clear definitions are important, because they make distinctions that people can debate and understand. Consistent definitions are important, because they establish the framework upon which future ideas and approaches can be built. Without that clarity and consistency, it just comes down to whomever has the most convincing argument, or the largest audience, for the moment.

I’m interested in your response. You’re helping me write a future column :) .

/chris

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Thanks Chris, I appreciate you taking the time to provide such a thorough response.  But let me play devil’s advocate…well, first, let me make sure I understand you correctly.  So, to put it in a nutshell, you propose that without that clear cut, fundamental understanding of the true definition of a brand, marketers find themselves subscribing to whatever trendy definition of branding that happens to be of-the-moment.  This leads to a failure to build upon a bedrock of incrementally learned knowledge and experience, and thus eliminates the potential to turn that hard earned knowledge into effective marketing practices.  Am I on track here?

Ok, now time to play "bad cop" :)   Let’s take the example of the two marketers in your article.  Guy #1 says a brand is a relationship.  Gal #2 says a brand is an image in the mind of the consumer.  Supposing that both marketers have used these definitions of a brand to guide their prospective marketing philosophies and practices, might they also have a wealth of knowledge and experience based upon their strict adherence to those definitions?  I am not saying that your argument or your definition is wrong – my point is that it seems that you are proposing two mutually exclusive things – #1 (from your article): A brand is just a name, a sign, or a symbol that distinguishes the products and services of one company from all others.  Failure to understand this will lead to misguided marketing practices…and #2 (from your email): Marketers fall victim to following whatever of-the-moment definition of branding/marketing is currently in vogue.  By doing so, they fail to implement marketing practices based upon a solid, fundamental foundation of learned knowledge.

Both arguments may be dead on, but I still don’t know why the definition of brand that you propose is correct, and how in practice the adherence to this definition will lead to the implementation of effective marketing practices!

Wphew….

Thanks again!

Justin

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Justin–

I think your summation of the argument in the first paragraph is on target–except that I probably wouldn’t say the "true definition" of brand. It’s a useful, traditional, and generally agreed upon definition outside the realm of pure marketing. But that’s just being anal.

So. If I understand your counter argument correctly–esp. in regard to the "mutually exclusive" propositions you see in mine–you seem to be saying that two different definitions of brand, as long as they are built on a solid foundation of practice and knowledge–could produce effective results for their respective clients. No question.

The problem is Guy #1 and Gal #2 aren’t operating in a vacuum. They communicate through shared channels, as do their clients. And the confusion and false debate over what brand is (since both their practices are distinct, and have value) creates an unnecessary drag on the development of a clear marketing practice in general (we do consider ourselves a profession, after all), and undermines the communication and "open source" development of shared principles.

Net Present Value is a calculation in finance with one, single definition, that means the same thing, to every person, everywhere. It always will. That kind of clarity does not ensure that every CFO will apply the calculation properly with a good result, but it does ensure that 1) the CFO can talk about his application of NPV to others without having to argue endlessly over semantics, 2) the CEO and board can easily educate themselves about what NPV means, and how to interpret the CFOs application, and 3) others outside the company, but with a vested interest (board, partners, investors, etc.) will be able to understand what the CFO is actually trying to accomplish–all because the meaning is universally understood.

I’m not arguing that finance is the golden model which marketing should emulate. Financial practices certainly have their own problems. But I would argue that the problems faced by finance are one or two evolutionary steps beyond marketing, which is still trying to figure out if it means what it says and says what it means.

It’s not, as you paraphrased my argument, that "Failure to understand [the definition of brand] will lead to misguided marketing practices." It’s that failure to understand the distinction between what is tangible and what is not, what adds value and what does not, what is within the control of the company and what is not, what can be created directly and what can only be influenced, what can be measured and what cannot…these distinctions are important to continuing the advancement of a professional marketing practice. Confusion prevents marketing from enjoying what most professions treat as fundamental–a shared language of universal meanings that allow us to communicate ideas and theories effectively. When everything is open to interpretation, and one word like brand is charged with carrying the weight of a thousand ideas–all of which may be valuable in their own right–it makes it impossible not only to communicate effectively among colleagues, it makes it impossible to communicate effectively with our stakeholders.

The bottom line is that a clear and consistent set of agreed upon definitions will lead to more effective marketing 1) because we can open up a more useful discussion within the profession in which we share ideas, theories, and experiences, instead of wasting time arguing over basic definitions, 2) because we clear the fog that allows self-proclaimed gurus to thrive on the trendiness of new definitions, 3) because we can communicate more clearly with clients and stakeholders who will be better able to participate in the marketing process.

I’ll stop there until I give you a chance to respond…

/chris
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As the Rock would say, I smell what you’re cookin’!  Basically you are advocating the industry-wide adherance to a standard definition of branding; based on this defintion, marketing profesionals can establish a common and universally understood language that will serve to advance the maturation of the industry.  Now, plug that definition into the intro of every single marketing manual/text/guide/tome/handbook and we’ll be getting somewhere…

Hope our back and forth helped you mine material for your next piece – I am interested to read it!

Thanks again,

Justin

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Gee. I think you should write it. :)

Kind of funny, or not, actually, that I’m arguing for clearer communication, but taking such a long route, eh?

I think what makes it difficult is that saying that an industry-wide standard of definitions is easy enough–the AMA does it every decade or so. It’s trying to tie that importance to the experience marketers are having today of being marginalized and pointedly questioned on their worth–and at the same time trying to wake many of them up, while pulling others out of a stance of defensiveness. 

Do you have any objection to my posting our discussion on my blog?

Thanks,

/chris 

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