March 15, 2005

By Christopher Kenton

What, Exactly, Is a Brand?

Don't believe the mystifying, long-winded explanations of trendy marketers. The answer is much simpler -- and absolutey essential to grasp

I have an easy solution for dramatically improving the quality of marketing. For months I've been writing on the hidden trends underlying business valuations, the esoteric debates over strategic focus, and the minutiae of new marketing metrics –- all in an attempt to help marketers find some solid ground in an increasingly chaotic environment. Yet what people really want is a simple formula. "Cut to the chase" is the mantra I can hear from the crowd.

So here's my simple formula. I promise it will solve anything that ails your marketing efforts.

If you have an in-house marketing team, call them into your office. If you use consultants, get them on the phone. If you're a marketer yourself, look directly into the mirror. Dispense with the small talk, and let some silence build dramatic tension in the room. Then, in a thoughtful voice, ask the one question that has the power to cleanse the earth of mushy-headed marketing. "So tell me, what exactly is a brand?"

BURNING SCAR.  If the answer is anything other than a clear, tangible description that can be summarized in a single sentence your crazy old aunt Alice can understand, throw the bums off the boat. Think of yourself as the bridgekeeper on Monty Python's Bridge of Death. If someone says a brand is a relationship, toss them over the side. If they say a brand is an image in the mind of the consumer, give 'em the heave-ho. Don't suffer any long-winded explanations. Keep a clear resolve.

After the gullies pile up with trendy marketers, you'll eventually find your way to someone who tells you a brand is just a name, a sign, or a symbol that distinguishes the products and services of one company from all others. If the loftiest metaphor they use in their description is a burning scar on the side of a cow, hire them. Give them a raise. Hug them for heaven's sake –- and your budget's sake. You've just found someone who won't lead your company over the cliff with all the other marketing lemmings.

Your brand is your name, your logo, your trade dress. You own it. There are clearly written laws to protect it. It is tangible enough to put a price on it. And yet, an entire generation of marketers has found a way to obscure the obvious, to make the brand more fantastic, to make it hard enough to understand that you need consultants to help you figure it out.

SAVE THOSE SYNAPSES.  It all started decades ago, with the simple recognition that in a mass market teeming with disposable products, consumers latch on to brands they've grown to trust. No one wants to sit around reconsidering whether they'd like Coke or Fred's Cola every time they're thirsty. Once you have tried Coke and like it, and it stays consistently likable every subsequent time you drink it, you can relegate that small decision to one of the 10,000 you don't have to think about every day.

Not thinking about every little decision is good for you. You can save those synapses for something more important. It's also good for Coke, since it ensures a steady stream of revenue, as long as customers can rely on the product delivering the same experience and value. That's where all this stuff came up about your brand being a promise to the consumer of the quality of your product. Except that it's not.

Your brand is your name, your logo, your burning scar on the side of your product. The expectation that consumers begin to attach to your brand is something else. It's an important something else that has value and that you should consider an important asset worthy of investment, but it's something else. In fact, a brand has a few something elses that are important associates of it and create value for your company.

BANKABLE VALUE.  There's brand experience –- the sum of all impressions consumers gain from interactions with your company. How does your receptionist answer the phone? How courteous are your truck drivers? Such experiences strongly influence another brand associate, brand image, which is often closely tied to brand reputation.

What does your market think of your brand? How does it make your customers feel? Will they use it again? Will they recommend it to friends? If your brand image is hot, and your brand reputation strong, it can improve your "brand equity," or the bankable value your brand has acquired from its ability to attract and retain customers.

All of these things are important, but they don't constitute brand. They're derivatives of brand. The more they're confused, the more susceptible businesses become to trendy theories that lead them over the cliff, like the one Heidi Schultz rails against in the American Marketing Assn.'s Marketing Management. The notion that customers "own" your brand.

AN ANCHOR.  It's a seductive thought for companies that value their clients, but a misguided one. Your customers own their impressions, and you can influence those impressions with the quality of your product, and the experiences you foster. But your brand is just the symbol that anchors those impressions to the product you create.

Don't take my formula too lightly. The definition of brand is the canary in the coal mine. If you're working with marketers who aren't clear-headed enough to distinguish between a tangible brand and its derivatives, how will they have the clarity to advise you on building a market? Get rid of them and find a marketer who can think straight. We'll all be better off.