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.