In a recent post I took you through some findings from a survey where I asked ‘what is a brand?’ It was a couple of months ago now and I’ve had the chance to reflect and to pull together some of my own thoughts, and propose my own definition.
Here I aim to share my thought process because I think it is important that brands, as effective business tools, are understood in more detail across the boardroom. The first step for this is to have a clear definition, so we all know what we are talking about.
A few of the thoughts from the survey centred on the idea of a brand being a promise. This sounds nice, but it is nothing new as Walter Landor put out this idea over 50 years ago. He said:
“Simply put, a brand is a promise. By identifying and authenticating a product or service it delivers a pledge of satisfaction and quality.”
…which is fine, except brands and our understanding of them have moved on since Walter muttered these words (I say ‘muttered’ – I don’t actually know whether he muttered or enunciated with confidence). He follows up with some pretty concise words, which I think have been forgotten: identifying, authenticating, satisfaction and quality. To me these are the words that matter more, in terms of classification.
Again, in the survey on Linkedin, Brian Johnson, Muller Design Studio said :
“[a brand]…stands for the perceptions and expectations that customers have about a product, service, or company.”
The important point I get from this is that even in the absence of a well managed brand people fill the void with their own ‘brand idea’ to represent the particular product, service, company, etc. Brands therefore hold intangible value as a perception and expectation, to use Brian’s words, which is why, as a concept, they are so difficult to classify, to pin down.
The good thing is that over the past 50 years we have come to understand intangible value much more. For me a recent report by the Credit Suisse Research Institute is a landmark for understanding brands as valuable business tools.
Therefore I think the time is ripe for a more concise definition. I think today if you say ‘a brand is a promise’ people look at you all funny. It is too abstract a way to describe something that should now be defined with more concrete, descriptive language.
So, what are the basic elements that make up this intangible little thing called ‘brand’?
Brands are about information – they impart information to someone, they are the sum of all public information there is about a product, service, company, person, country, city, or just about anything that exists in the public space. A well managed brand knows this and can lead, frame and manage the information that is produced about it (note I don’t say control).
Information has received bad press of late. In this context information as not simply ‘data’, but also ideas, concepts, emotional outbursts, extreme views – just about anything that can be expressed in the multitude of media we use today.
And bad press goes to the heart of why a promise is a blunt descriptor for brands today. Yes, you can make and keep a promise and well managed brands should do this to identify what makes them unique. But it is the upholding of this promise that is the challenge. Trust is the battlefield for brands – the place where sustainable competitive advantage is fought and won.
As we know, negative press, or negative information in this context, can come from the weirdest places. Rants can become information which devalues a brand because they affect our perception, and therefore how we make decisions associated with the brand.
Which brings me to decisions. Decisions, decisions, decisions. Brands are created to ‘help us’ reach decisions, or perhaps from a more realistic perspective, to reach decisions more easily.
In a world crammed with information, it’s crippling to think deeply about each decision we make – we simply would not be able to keep up. We would all be caught up in what I like to call the Standing In Front of the Fridge moment – the moment when you are confronted with eating either cheese that’s two months old or a near rotten tomato, and you just stand there staring blankly. This moment tends to happen at 2am, in a dressing gown, but the less said about that the better.
It’s widely known that decisions are not rational but are driven by emotion – or a feeling which is then supported by ‘rational’ (read ‘selected’) data. So when building a brand embracing emotion is vital to pin point the exact decision the brand is creating, and the implications of that decision. Which is where loyalty comes into the equation.
Brands exist to create an action, to make someone do something that it advantageous for the brand – whether it is making a repeat purchase of a cola based drink, making an on-going commitment to work for a company, or staying with a mobile phone provider. It’s not merely about making a promise and leaving it at that – the audience needs to do something for the brand in return for the transaction to be fulfilled.
People need an emotional reward for participating in the transaction, which is where, to me, brand strategy becomes interesting. But I think that’s for another post that asks questions like what makes a brand stand out from the alternative decisions that can be made. Decisions create a new chain of events that have human consequences and implications and brands should serve again to lead, frame and manage this.
So, what should the definition be? Is it something that informs people so they can make a decision to take an action. If it is I come to:
Brand: the sum of experience needed to create and sustain a lasting public relationship.
I think it’s still vague, but it moves us beyond talk of promises, which we all know from the lyrics of the Beautiful South, turn to dust. What do you think? Is it futile to search for an all emcompassing definiton for a ‘brand’?