Monthly Archives: April 2005


Big changes are on the horizon that I hope to be able to announce next week. It’s been a crazy whirlwind, but everything is falling into place. I hope to be back on point by Wednesday with some new energy and new ideas. Thank you for your readership and comments, and thank you for bearing with me while I shift gears.

And the Brand Played On (and on)2

I guess the debate isn’t over. Jennifer Rice at BrandShift is taking up the dialog on the meaning of brand. The crux of Jennifer’s argument is that the definition of "brand" as a tangible symbol that distinguishes one company’s products and services from the competition is too narrow–and too "company-centric". She argues that we should understand "brand as an idea".

Let’s take a fictional character called Joe Shmo. Joe works hard to
cultivate a reputation as a smart, well-connected and savvy business
professional. He believes that these qualities represent his personal
brand. Unfortunately, those who know Joe say he’s overly opinionated,
boorish and irritating. They believe that’s Joe’s brand. Who’s right?
Joe, or those who know Joe?

The answer is, both are right. Christopher would say that others’
opinions represent ‘brand reputation,’ not the actual brand. I say that
a brand is worthless without understanding how the brand is perceived
in the marketplace. A brand is the ultimate co-created corporate asset.

I’d prefer if we started instead with an analogy that is actually a business. One of the posters on this blog, Sage, offered an analog to Jennifer’s example with Enron.

Perceptions change. Brands do not. Want proof? Enron circa 1999 and Enron today. Same brand. Totally different perceptions of the brand.

A tangible definition of brand is the cornerstone that allows us to make distinctions about what adds value to the brand and what does not. I’m not arguing with Jennifer’s ideas about the importance of the customer relationship in developing brand equity, but if the meaning of "brand" is to be understood to encompass everything that influences or increases its value, than the word has no identifiable boundary. Yes, a brand is worthless without understanding how it is perceived in the marketplace (or at least worth less), just like a car is worthless if there’s no gas. But we don’t say gas is the car. It is a distinct, critical component of the system that makes the car useful. Just like brand image–that idea in the mind of the customer–is a critical component of the system that makes a brand valuable.

I think a lot of people reading my posts have come to the conclusion that I’m denying the importance of the customer relationship in building a strong and valuable brand. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am *only* arguing that we have come to a point in the evolution of marketing where our imagination has run headfirst into the brickwall of rational necessity. Marketing exists as a corporate function–if the company stops investing in the marketing budget, the customer is not going to come in and pick up the tab. Companies are increasingly confused by marketing concepts–not because they are wrong or misguided, but because they are poorly communicated, inconsistent and detached from a demonstration of measurable value.

The idea that a brand is an image in the mind of the consumer, that it is co-created with the customer, is a great strategic concept that can help businesses get beyond a product-centric focus that leaves their customers uninspired. We need more of that. But at the same time, we need to understand that just as companies live or die by the satisfaction of their customers, they also live and die by the satisfaction of their investors. Companies are being pressed to wall to demonstrate *how* value is created, and when 10-50% of revenue is going into marketing, they are not going to countenance marketers continuing to say that brand is some ethereal idea that can’t really be pinned down but we think it’s in the mind of the customer.

Company centric? Yes. That’s who pays the bills. The marketers who make real advances in building a customer-centric landscape will be those who understand that fact and are able to keep it in balance. The first step down that path, in my mind, is the kind of professional discipline that insists on semantic clarity so that we can all communicate knowledge and ideas consistently without having to spend most of our energy recalibrating meanings.

If you want to insist that "brand" means more than it has been both traditionally and professionally  defined to mean (AMA)–ie: a symbol–than you need to demonstrate 1) how that meaning is insufficient, and 2) how the existence of related, but distinct concepts, fails to address that insufficiency.


And the Brand Played On (and on)

Alright. I can finally start putting the semantic argument over the meaning of brand to bed. My column finally posted on Business Week, after a week’s editorial delay left me twiddling my thumbs. I’m certain there will still be some semantic discussions in the weeks ahead, but I think the foundation is layed and it’s time to move on.

One interesting note on this whole exercise. After digging so relentlessly into the confusion over the meaning of brand, and then stepping back from it, the whole process of how we got to such confusion seems suddenly so clear. Brands as important commercial symbols have been around since ancient history. But an appreciation for the critical value of brand to commercial success really exploded during the rise of mass markets after World War II. At that point, we started developing all kinds of approaches to building value in the brand–from enhancing the relationship between the company and the customer to developing aggressive competitive strategies. So far, so good.

The confusion arises when we start to believe that activities that *add value to the brand* are in fact *creating brand*. At that point, we can start to make the argument–as so many marketers do today–that *any* activity that adds value to a brand is really producing the brand. And since so many activities that add value to the brand produce so many disparate things, each of those things suddenly becomes invested with the title of brand, and we no longer have any clarity. It only gets worse when you realize that many of those activities are owned by competing camps within marketing (advertising, direct mail, interactive, design, etc.), and each has a vested interest in staking their claim to the role of Brand Creator.

Well, I’ve made my argument. In many ways, it’s less about the meaning of brand than it is about the future of marketing. Do we have the capability to sort through the confusion we’ve created and clarify the concepts that define our profession so that businesses understand the value we provide? Do we have the ability to even recognize there’s a problem at all? Or will we wind up pushing a shopping cart down the halls of corporate America babbling on to ourselves about how important we are while everyone looks at us with a mixture of sadness and disgust? Really, it’s an unkind metaphor, but that’s what’s at stake.

Papa’s Got a Bland New Brand 2

I just got off the phone with John Winsor. We had a great conversation about brands and marketing, and we’re essentially on the same page. He posts his own response to my comments here. I have to say what I appreciate about the whole experience is finding a thread online that leads to an open and engaging discussion, less about "what’s wrong" with marketing per se than about how marketing can be done more effectively.

John’s focus is on the development of *real* interaction between marketers and their customers, rather than the relationship-by-proxy that happens through agencies, focus-groups, surveys, etc. He talks about going Beyond the Brand (ie: the hype of branding) by changing the one-way flow of marketing communication–the broadcasting of a pre-fab message–to a two-way dialog with customers. I can’t argue with that–in fact, I’m looking forward to more of a dialog with John in the future.

Papa’s Got a Bland New Brand

This is unreal. Over at Corante’s BrandShift blog, John Winsor is arguing that the word brand has become too stale to be useful, and that we need to come up with some *new* special word that infuses new life into what it is that marketing does.

The word brand has started to loose it’s magic through overuse. Is
there another word that captures the same concepts? If so, what is it?

Is this really the face of marketing today? Is this the best we can do? Apparently, the way to solve marketing’s shortcomings is not to dig deep in order to understand how we are failing to provide real value and how we can improve; the solution is to just toss away the old paradigm and create something new and shiny. A new word will solve all our problems and make it all magical again. 

*This* is exactly what I’ve been ranting about for the past few weeks. I am extending an invitation to John Winsor–and anyone at Corante–to dialog on this topic and explain their point of view. I’ll keep you posted on whether or not we can get something going to get to the bottom of this.

I should have mentioned in the post that Winsor was picking up the call for a new word for Brand from a William Safire column  that makes the same case: "brand" is bland, let’s have something new. That doesn’t change my position–I could add to it by saying marketers probably shouldn’t be taking professional cues from William Safire–but the original column is relevant to the discussion.

From Brand to Branding

Out of the frying pan and into the fire. I posted my final Business Week column on the meaning of brand–I’ll post a link here when it goes live–wrapping up my argument for a concrete definition, while unavoidably opening another can of worms. If a Brand is a tangible symbol that distinguishes one company’s products from all competitors, what is Branding?

A couple of years back, when The Industry Standard was still a 150-page print magazine (remember that?), I had an animated discussion with one of the editors about "branding". They had done a special section on the topic, and every single one of the articles was on advertising. At the time, my company was heavily engaged in interactive development, and I was making the argument that the creation of an online experience was every bit as important a branding activity as advertising–in fact, for some companies, it’s the most important activity. Yahoo, eBay and Google all became household names because of the experience they delivered, not their snappy ads–which didn’t even begin until after they had made their mark.

I’ll still make the same argument today–although I no longer try to claim that the experience you create *is* your brand. Your brand is still the symbol, but the experience enhances the value of the symbol, both for you and your customer. In fact, all of the activities that a company engages in to maximize the value of the company/customer relationship, in my mind, fall in some way under the category of branding. Take Customer Service as an example. To some degree, Customer Service is just Customer Service–it’s providing accountability for a product according to the service contract. But to the extent the company realizes Customer Service is a critical touchpoint with valued customers, and invests in going beyond basic accountability to try and influence the customer’s perception of the company–by having intelligent operators answer the phone, by offering a replacement product, whatever–any returns on that investment accrue to the brand.

So, what is the definition of "branding"? No help from the AMA here, they don’t have it in their dictionary. If you use Google’s helpful "define:" command, you come up with a reasonable grabbag of definitions –many of which simply revert to "brand". But building on the original cowboy definition of brand as the symbol, and branding as the act of applying the symbol, we could follow the same approach in business:

Branding is the set of activities that serve to create or build the brand.

As most companies know today, the relationship with the customer permeates far more of the company’s operations than just marketing, sales and service. For some companies, the way you answer the phone is key, for others, it’s the way you drive your trucks. For some companies it’s your Web site experience that influences customers most, for others it’s the fact that you invest some of your profits in charity. While some activities are pure acts of branding–like advertising–others may be more subtle but equally important. Whatever the activity is, to the extent you go beyond the function of the activity itself to try and improve your relationship with customers and prospects, it is, I would propose, branding–the activity is designed to add value to your brand.

I can already hear the mail coming. If you know of a solid and authoritative definition of branding, please let me know and I’ll post it. If you have a good argument for why branding should be more limited, or more expansive, likewise. There’s a lot of ground to cover…

Tripping (over) the Light Brandtastic

I’m working on my next column on brand concepts, sifting through a lot of the complaints that have been leveled at my reductionism (that every instance of brand is, by definition, tangible).

Most of the people passionate enough to send me hate mail complain that I’m oversimplifying the complexity of marketing. Apparently, because I’m arguing that the definition of the word *brand* should be understood in its simplist form, these people make the knee-jerk assumption that I’m cynically tossing out all of the other concepts associated with brand building–like the CFO with horns and a pitch-fork that must be haunting their dreams. Is it possible that the universe can contain one core concept for brand that is concrete, and also accommodate derivative concepts that are *distinct* but arrayed around the core? Heavens no. Everything must be lumped into the vague domain of a single word. It’s like brand has become the magic bag of Felix the Cat–it can be anything you want it to be.

Others, like the letter sent to my editor at BW (the one from Gaurav Bahirvani), go a step further by mounting a defense for the soft subtlety of marketing that defies quantitative analysis:

I disagree with Kenton regarding marketers not being adept at
demonstrating return on investment. Marketing or branding is a
qualitative aspect. It is not a 2+2 sum which will give you a definite
answer. In marketing, you’re playing with emotions and human psyche,
not numbers.

Okay, let’s parse that for just a moment. He disagrees with the notion that marketers aren’t adept at proving ROI. My assumption would be that he would follow that statement by showing how, in fact, marketers are good at proving ROI. But no, he mounts the defense that marketing is about emotions and human psyche, not numbers. Which, I guess, is a proposition that marketers should be immune from having to prove ROI. Why? Because it’s too hard to give a definite answer.

As a businessman, if you’re on my payroll you need to show me why putting a dollar in your budget is a better bet than putting that dollar in the stock market–or in the lottery, for that matter. As long as marketers argue that they are entitled to immunity from quantitative performance review, simply because they’re dealing with something that is hard to measure–and that everyone else should just "get it"–they’re lemmings: they’re apparently ignorant of the tidal wave of marketing metrics and accountability measures that are sweeping through the business world. Sarbanes-Oxley anyone?

Finally, there are those who will accommodate me, grudgingly, as some curious fundamentalist. They’re not quite sure why I’m insisting on this line of argument, but they’ll grant that I’m not entirely wrong even if I’m not entirely right. The most gracious of these is over at hypocritical, which goes into some interesting detail about the mindset of marketers who are arguing against me.

Here’s the thing. He’s not wrong. He just has a different semantic
argument for his definition of the word "brand." It happens to be
completely at odds with my definition. And that, to quote , is okay.

My whole point has been that it’s not okay. And this is the heart of the problem. Please understand this. I AM NOT ASKING YOU TO AGREE WITH ~~MY~~ DEFINITION OF BRAND. And I, personally, will not countenance your creation of a NEW definition of brand. Why? I’ll be the *first* to champion a living language in which words can be created, modified, exploded–we didn’t get to 100,000+ plus words in the English language by insisting on stasis. But when you get to the point of MASS CONFUSION, you must stabilize the language you use to communicate and transfer knowledge, or you embrace intellectual oblivion.

The simple fact is that the standard definition of brand, the one that defines a brand as a symbol that sets one company’s products apart from competitors, is entirely serviceable today in 2005, and the attempts to push derivative concepts into the meaning are self-serving, egotistical and misguided–not to mention professionally suicidal.

The heart of the problem, to me, is this: Marketers have creative minds that are able to see many shades of gray. There’s a lot of value in seeing the nuances in life–it allows you to apprehend patterns, to anticipate trends before you see the numbers, to see more than those who can only see black and white. But there comes a time when so much gray becomes impossible to navigate. We talk past each other like a bunch of babbling idiots, each asserting our own spin on the grayness, our own self-congratulatory definitions. At that point it becomes necessary to step pack, to prune the vast overgrown tree and pare it down to the strongest branches.

My entire argument is that that time is now.

Brand Semantics 102

I’m still getting a lot of contact on this topic, ranging from encouragement to head scratching–with a few good flames to keep things entertaining. I’ll be moving up a level in brand exploration with a new Business Week column next Tuesday, but in the meantime, Jason Kerr picks up the semantic thread over at Brandlessness, scrutinizing the reduction of "brand" to the foundation of tangible assets.

I intuitively agree with you that
a brand is what it is. A taxonomic
anchor. But which one? You said it’s "your name, your logo, your trade dress.." Well which is it? If a brand is "a
concrete thing," then it’s a concrete thing.  BUT if you define it as
a set of different concrete things that share a common idea, well then…  it’s an abstraction.

That’s an interesting distinction that could take us deep into semiotics, at which point we might as well just shoot the audience. Let me try framing it like this: all dogs are mammals, but not all mammals are dogs You can certainly say that "mammal" is an abstraction–a title for a group of things that hold a common quality–but you know that every single mammal, whether it’s a dog or a cat or a blue whale, will be tangible. Same thing with brand. A logo is always a brand, but a brand isn’t always a logo. It can also be your name, your trade dress, or one of a number of  touchpoints. But if it’s not a tangible symbol that distinguishes your products and services from all others it’s not an example of brand.

So yes, technically, the word brand signifies concrete things without being concrete itself, and yet, it’s used interchangeably with the concrete things it signifies. If I walked my dog, you wouldn’t correct me if I claimed to be walking a mammal–although in that example, you’d probably think I was a little whacked.

Marketing Virtue

It’s not very often that I talk about politics or religion when I’m writing in a business forum. There are plenty of other places to go to get that kind of insight and opinion, to which there’s not a lot for me to add. But the outpouring of emotion following the death of the pope has been fascinating to ponder, and I think there are a few connections to business and commerce worth thinking about.

I can’t say I’ve been a cheering fan of what many Catholics refer to as the Roman Party. Like any powerful institution made up of human beings, it has a lot of flaws that bear real scrutiny. But I suspect there’s a profound social value in having in our midst a strong institution that views time in the span of hundreds of years, rather than 4 fiscal quarters, and that places the dignity of life above the pursuit of a dollar.

When I see the images of millions around the world paying their respects to Karol Wojtyla, I suspect it’s not so much about his policies and positions as it is about the legacy of a man who didn’t shrink from power, but had the strength to sustain a vision of human dignity for a lifetime without tripping over the trappings of power. Whether or not you appreciate his policies or his legacy, it’s hard to ignore the integrity and perseverance he brought to a very human struggle with some of the most difficult challenges of our time. We no longer seem to really expect or demand integrity as a quality of our politicians, our business leaders, or our cultural stars. But when we see it, I believe the better part of us remembers its value.

I’ve seen a few of the over-produced media obituaries for Pope John Paul II this weekend. Such a self-conscious sense of having a ring-side seat to history. I think there’s something lost when we reposition the man as superman, so unlike us that his struggles almost seem like a stage device–as if the struggle is more symbolic than real. But I also suspect we need to market virtue to ourselves; we need to distill the essence of integrity, enshrine it, and package it for the masses in a language we all understand, to be consumed as a clear and universal truth.

In a real sense, Karol Wojtyla has become a product. In the coming weeks, his brand will move untold millions of dollars in the name of commemoration. It’s easy to be cynical about this, but if it makes you stop for a moment in the middle of your business life and think about what you stand for and what you’re willing to do about it, it’s worth it.

We could do worse.