And the Brand Played On (and on)2

by Chris Kenton on April 20, 2005

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.

 

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Tom Asacker April 20, 2005 at 8:33 am

And here, Christopher, is what’s tripping up your thinking (I think):

“Marketing exists as a corporate function.”

Marketing and innovation are *not* corporate “functions.” They are corporate philosophies that should be the focus of *every* department. Once you see this distinction, brand as organizing principle will become readily apparent.

jens April 20, 2005 at 10:32 am

ok. for the sake of it:

marketing IS a corporate function. the girls and guys in the colourful shirts take care of it, not the bean counters, not the it-administrators, not the engineers… that is still reality for the majority of companies.
and the girls and guys from the marketing department are assisted by external individuals in even more colourful shirts – agencies, consultants, happy specialists of every trade – and sorry, i do not want to be polemic or sound like a messiah – in 95% of all cases these external individuals CREATE the brand. and why? because the marketing guys are rarely able to come up with a valid briefing. and why not? because “aesthetics/innovation/creativity” has a hard way of travelling the paths of corporate decision making.
if you are a brand-consultant – and if you (for what ever reason… lack of corporate awareness.. what ever) do not have the full backing and attention of the most powerful person in your client’s company – you will find yourself fighting endless (bullshitting-) battles with the PR agency, with the ad agency, with the graphics design studio, with the product design studio… battles, that leave the marketing director who pays all of you in a state of bewilderment… WHO is right where only flashy phrases count? … and the flashiest phrase will climb up the ladder of decision making to justify the brand decision.
reality.

and of course:
“Marketing and innovation are *not* corporate “functions.” They are corporate philosophies that should be the focus of *every* department.” (tom asacker)
yes, well spoken. that is what the market demands. and the market demands it just like this: with a cruel and happy smile. deliver, or somebody else will!


to my concern, tom and chris, both of you are right. – although i do not know if you want to hear that – and maybe i have also already lost it completely over this discussion…

to my concern you are looking at the same thing from a different angle. and exactly in the middle – exactly there – lies the challenge.

- my humble opinion.

over and out.

Tom Asacker April 20, 2005 at 10:44 am

And here, Christopher, is what’s tripping up your thinking (I think):

“Marketing exists as a corporate function.”

Marketing and innovation are *not* corporate “functions.” They are corporate philosophies that should be the focus of *every* department. Once you see this distinction, brand as organizing principle will become readily apparent.

Chris Kenton April 20, 2005 at 11:09 am

Brand as the organizing principle? How about *revenue* as the organizing principle? If marketing is not a corporate function but a philosophy, then the marketing department should be eliminated and replaced with copies of “The Marketing Imagination” for the rest of the corporate staff.

Yes, the entire company needs to understand the marketing principle–just like the entire company *should* understand the finance principle. To that extent, it is a philosophy. But if, in your enthusiasm for philosophy, you eliminate the notion of functionality–and by extension, accountability–you’ve just detached yourself from the *reality* of business operations to become an Ivory Tower marketeer. That is ~precisely~ the reason marketing has lost its boardroom credibility.

Sage Osterfeld April 20, 2005 at 6:37 pm

Corporate philosophy? Huh?

For those who have wandered off the path and into the dark woods of existentialist self-importance, allow me to shed a little harsh light and guide you back.

Corporations, companies, partnerships, sole proprietorships, and all other forms of business entities exist to exchange goods and/or services for money (or other items of value) — usually for a profit.

They do this in a place called “the market”.

Coincidentally, the root word in “marketing” is “market”. And if you are engaged in the act of “marketing”, you perform tasks that prepare, enhance and assist in the exchange of (your organization’s) goods and services for money/other items of value.

Thus, marketing is a corporate function.

Anyone who does not believe this is invited to go to their boss/client/executive and tell them “I am not here to help you “prepare, enhance and assist in the exchange of (your organization’s) goods and services for money/other items of value. I am here to spread a philosophy that (insert an explanation here which cannot include making money).”

See how long you last.

jens April 21, 2005 at 1:32 am

as they say in systems theory:

a system is in a fundamental crisis when the traditional ways of describing the system’s environment suddenly happen to be essentially insufficient to capture the system’s reality.

means:
- for very good reasons you might think that RAIN is a good thing. and so you put the flowers outside to let them grow. and then suddenly the damn rain burns holes into your flowers. – and, damn!, is this still… RAIN?
but, your language is only an expression of the way that you live – of the way that you have organized yourself in your environment.
so, most probably you will not only change your language to distinguish between good and bad rain – you will also have to adjust your actions to a changed environment.

if you cannot distinguish between the one kind of rain and the other one, you have got a problem. if you fail to reorganize your life, you have got an even greater one.

if BRAND now happens to be a word too imprecise to grasp what is going on in the market… well then…
… then it does not take much to make the next step and say: let’s see how we can change our way of thinking marketing-communication completely. let us change our perspective.
so you step out of the marketing box. and – that is being done everywhere in the last few years.
but you have to take your marketing guys with you (although you would rather want to fire most of them and hire some smart archaeologists for example:))….
you do not only have to change the way you THINK marketing – you have to change the way you ORGANIZE marketing.
you find yourself introducing new corporate structures and new coordination processes and you find yourself finding new and more precise variations of the word brand.


sorry tom, for quoting only half:
“… Once you see this distinction, brand as organizing principle will become readily apparent.”
:)
brand is not a marketing challenge, it is first of all an organizational challenge.

Bruce DeBoer April 22, 2005 at 8:08 am

Chris K – Damn good stuff. I think in general everyone in this brand discussion “gets it” – great, now what?

The issue that I like to pull into most brand (and marketing philosophy) discussions, and the one you touched on, regards marketing as a corporate function. At the risk of igniting another rant, we marketing types use marketing interchangeably with marketing communications because [I believe] that’s the point at which we usually engaged with our clients. Marketing is much more. Marketing is your business if you want to stay in business. It’s a philosophy but – more importantly – it had better be a function.

Brand definition or no brand definition, marketers (us) need to demonstrate our worth. Any thoughts on why it’s breaking down? Perhaps this is a new Post.

Thomas April 25, 2005 at 9:05 pm

Marketing is not the only discipline that suffers from the imprecision of language.

In your article “What, Exactly, Is a Brand” you make the comment that “In finance, meanings are universal and incontrovertible.” I’m afraid this is not really the case.

You provide “Net Present Value” as an example. Can I suggest that a better example would be more basic words such as “Asset” or “Liability”. The definitions of these words in the accounting standards are so abstract as to be rendered almost meaningless.

It is easy enough to define subclasses of liabilities, for example, but very difficult to arrive at a general definition that everyone agrees with.

The problem with defining Brand as “a name, a sign, or a symbol that distinguishes the products and services of one company from all others” is that it is not terribly useful. You might as well just use the word “Trademarks”. It is the derivative concepts that are important and useful and so those concepts have become integral to what is meant by the word “brand”.

Of course, it does mean that talking about “brand” and expecting everyone to be on the same page is pretty unwise. Perhaps marketers should be more careful to make sure that they clarify which aspect of “brand” they are talking about. eg “brand equity” or “brand recognition”.

jens April 27, 2005 at 5:24 am

and another view from the other side of the atlantic:

“A Credibility Gap for Marketers

Recent interviews with more than 30 European CEOs and chief marketing officers suggest that many marketers have a credibility problem because their creativity often runs counter to the discipline needed to excel elsewhere in the organization. Influential CMOs build credibility in two ways: by tracking the impact of marketing initiatives and by upgrading the marketing group’s skills—particularly those that could significantly improve the company’s performance.

CMOs who focus on measuring the effects of their initiatives, on building skills, and on aligning themselves with other top managers are more likely to contribute to a company’s revenue and growth.”

McKinsey Quarterly 2/2005

Anonymous April 28, 2005 at 10:36 am

I find it funny that you people (marketing professionals) can’t agree on what a brand is. Who really designs the brand? Well, graphic designers do – not the brand managers or the marketing professionals. Sure they have their input and say yea or nay when presented with a font for the business card – but they mostly live inside their heads thinking up Orwellian newspeak and planning the next career move.

A brand is an identity for a business. It’s the name stupid. It can be, but does not have to be a stylized font with accompanying graphics and colour specifications. Ideally, the brand has a mnemonic device like the golden arches or the FedEx arrow.

Great companies make great brands. The BMW logo is an uninspiring design but they make great cars, so people perceive the brand positively.

The best thing a marketer or a brand manager can do to help a company’s brand is to tell the CEO is to make the best products and provide the best service to it’s customers. Err, you can’t say that though can you? So you gotta say soemthing in the board meetings. What a charade it is. Blah blah, blah… your lips are moving but I have no idea what this new age marketing rheotic means for the company’s bottom line.

Anonymous April 28, 2005 at 10:45 am

I find it funny that you people (marketing professionals) can’t agree on what a brand is. Who really designs the brand? Well, graphic designers do not the brand managers or the marketing professionals. Sure they have their input and say yea or nay when presented with a font for the business card – but they mostly live inside their heads thinking up Orwellian newspeak and planning the next career move.

A brand is an identity for a business. It’s the name stupid. It can be, but does not have to be a stylized font with accompanying graphics and colour specifications. Ideally, the brand has a mnemonic device like the golden arches or the FedEx arrow.

Great companies make great brands. The BMW logo is an uninspiring design but they make great cars, so people perceive the brand positively.

The best thing a marketer or a brand manager can do to help a company’s brand is to tell the CEO is to make the best products and provide the best service to it’s customers. Err, you can’t say that though can you? So you gotta say soemthing in the board meetings. What a charade it is. Blah blah, blah… your lips are moving but I have no idea what this new age marketing rheotic means for the company’s bottom line.

Juno888 July 4, 2007 at 6:22 pm

A brand is an identity for a business. It’s the name stupid. It can be, but does not have to be a stylized font with accompanying graphics and colour specifications. Ideally, the brand has a mnemonic device like the golden arches or the FedEx arrow.

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And the Brand Played On (and on)

by Chris Kenton on April 19, 2005

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.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Aamir Jan April 19, 2005 at 9:40 pm

“Brand, I believe, should be understood as a tangible symbol that distinguishes one company’s products from those of the competition.”-http://www.businessweek.com/smallbiz/content/apr2005/sb20050419_0828_sb037.htm

Then, what’s the difference between ‘brand’ and ‘trademark’?

jens April 20, 2005 at 6:00 am

that’s it.

jens April 20, 2005 at 6:03 am

refering to christopher’s post: :)

that’s it.

Chris Kenton April 20, 2005 at 11:53 am

Aamir–

I’m having a similar discussion over at Corante. Here’s a link to my response about the difference between trademark and brand:

http://www.corante.com/brandshift/archives/2005/04/18/defining_brand.php#21932

Aamir Jan April 21, 2005 at 12:42 am

Chris,

At Corante http://www.corante.com/brandshift/archives/2005/04/18/defining_brand.php#21932, you state:

“My own limited understanding of the relationship between brand and trademark is that all trademarks are brands, but not all brands are trademarks.”

So, trademark is a proper subset of brand? But in your BusinessWeek article, do you define a ‘brand’ or a ‘trademark’? To me it seems that you have defined a trademark, since you refer to ‘a tangible symbol’.

Chris April 21, 2005 at 8:45 am

Amir–

If you read through the dictionary definitions of trademark and brand, you’ll find that from a lay perspective they are essentially synonymous.

Trademark: a mark that is used by a manufacturer or merchant to identify the origin or ownership of goods and to distinguish them from others and the use of which is protected by law.

Brand: A trademark or distinctive name identifying a product or a manufacturer. (That’s Merriam Webster, not AMA)

The main difference appears to be that Trademark is a more precise *legal* definition of Brand. I would assume that the etymology stemmed from the need to be even more precise in legal terms about exactly what a brand refers to, since brand in the vernacular is not precise.

One resulting additional distinction appears to be that while Trademark refers to one single representation of a symbol (ie: Windows may have multiple trademarks associated with the brand–the name, numerous logo versions, etc.) brand can comprise multiple representations of a single conceptual object (the Windows brand includes its name and multiple logos). If that’s accurate (I’m fact-checking with some IP attorneys) then from a business standpoint, trademark is a subset of brand, but both refer to symbols that distinguish one company’s products from its competitors.

The use of the word “tangible” is admittedly problematic. Some people will insist that tangible means concrete enough for you to be able to touch, while others will recognize a subtle spectrum. A Rottweiler is a subset of “dog”. Does that mean if I say I’m petting my dog people will complain that what I’ve said is impossible, because dog is simply an abstraction? Every instance of dog is concrete, and so the abstraction is used as if it were concrete. I’m arguing the same with brand. You could say that because the legal world made “trademark” more precisely defined, brand immediately became an abstract grouping of trademarks. But every instance of brand is a *material* representation of an identifying symbol, and is therefore, I will argue, tangible: it can be perceived through the senses.

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