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Brand Management

Branding Desperately Needs To Rebrand Itself

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Once in a while a consultant gets lucky and encounters a trend before it takes hold across their marketplace. Over the past few months I think I have been running up against just such a trend and it worries me.

I am increasingly convinced that the biggest challenge brand managers will face over the next decade will be protecting the brand of brand.

Let me share three recent experiences with you and then I will explain exactly what I mean.

In a session with the board of one of Britain’s biggest service companies, the chief operating officer commented: ‘I think the problem for our team is that we see branding as a strong contender for buzz word of the month. It’s management-speak and we just don’t buy it.’ Her statement drew strong support from her colleagues.

An MBA student approached me about the possibility of pursuing a PhD.

We discussed potential research topics and I suggested brand architecture.

‘Great area. But I wouldn’t want to get tarred with the whole brand thing,’ he demurred.

Over a pint one evening, the head of branding for one of the world’s biggest banks said to me: ‘These days, if I want to get our brand strategy implemented across the group, the last word I am going to utter to my chief executive or to the head of investment banking is “brand”. I will talk share price or sales targets. But if I even whisper the B word, I know all will be lost.’

In 1988 a fledgling brand identity firm called Interbrand helped fend off an aggressive bid for one of its clients by providing a highly speculative valuation of their client’s portfolio of brands. Two years later David Aaker published Managing Brand Equity and the modern era of brand management had begun.

Now that era is coming to a close.

Most organizations have ‘rebranded’ themselves with excessive budgets and questionable impact. Brand consulting companies have fought internecine struggles to come up with different proprietary definitions for that most simple of concepts: brand equity.

The result of this confusing cornucopia of conceptualization has been the alienation of the clients these concepts were designed to attract in the first place.

Saatchi & Saatchi even went as far as to modestly announce a ‘future beyond brands’ in the shape of its concept of the, ahem, Lovemark. The concept of brand is now freely applied to pop bands, pets, movie stars and countries.

The brand era offered marketers that which they had always craved: power.

Brand was the magical ladder that would finally elevate the marketer from the lowly world of direct mail and logo design into the boardroom.

Ten years on and it seems marketers have dragged the branding concept down to their level instead. Marketers’ inability to focus on substance over superficiality and to speak the language of business, rather than bullshit, means the brand of brand is in crisis.

The people who make the decisions with respect to brand are not marketers, and they grow increasingly circumspect about the veracity of branding. In front of shareholders or marketing teams everyone may still be talking a good branding game, but the next time you hear a non-marketer speak about branding, listen for the irony in their tone. It’s an inflection growing louder in Europe’s boardrooms and it bodes ill.

I may occasionally question the ability of branders, but I have always believed in brands.

Who can save our profession? Who can rebrand the brand before it’s too late? Physicians, time to heal thyselves.

30 SECONDS ON … BRAND WATERSHEDS

– The Lovemark concept was invented by Saatchi & Saatchi chief executive Kevin Roberts (Pictured). Claiming that ‘brands have stalled’, Roberts believes that Lovemarks are the future for Saatchis.

– Managing Brand Equity was published by Berkeley’s professor of marketing, David Aaker, in 1991. The book, which has sold more than 100,000 copies and has been translated into eight languages, was the first to systematically describe the challenges of modern brand management. Aaker went on to co-found brand consultancy Prophet.

– Interbrand’s path to becoming brand valuation experts was more by accident than design. In 1988, Australian asset-stripper Goodman Fielder Wattie attempted to buy RHM. As a defensive tactic, RHM asked Interbrand to value its brands. Interbrand came up with a figure of £678m, the acquisition was averted and Interbrand discovered a lucrative new business.

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7 Comments

Bharat on July 02nd, 2008 said

Hi…I’m a regular reader of this blog and am from Bangalore , India and work as a consultant for a Brand Strat consulting firm.

I totally agree with your article. It seems like the equity of “Brand” is just being eroded and people who don’t really understand branding, are in positions and act as catalysts in the process.

What peeves me more is the fact that ad agencies think that branding is all about logo and their advertising…it’s a superficial and visual aspect.

Craig on July 02nd, 2008 said

I like it, after reading my 100th and probably my last brand management book, I have realised that I have gone full circle in my approach to business strategy. Businesses and marketeers in search of that magic formula for success are not going to like my comments below, but after bumping my head in the FMCG business for a number of years, I now know that simplicity in our approach to strategy is ultimately the only way to ensure greatness. There are no magic “wows” here, no revolutionary changes and no wizard leaders to guide us through times of toil…

I have distilled it down to just 3 steps…..

1. Decide where you want to focus your brands/business…

2. Be very clear on how you will achieve this…

3. Be rigorous in driving operational excellence…

No real glory there, just hard work, commitment and a quest for excellence…How you apply these steps to your business is the key question. Not what our “secret handshake club” of marketing boys like.

Simple task….? Not really…Deciding on where to focus your business can only be based on some sound customer insights. You don’t have this in place, you are going to chase the wrong objectives. How close you are to these customers is something you need to pursue with vigour, constantly test yourself, don’t settle.

Deciding how to win is a tricky task of balancing all variables of your marketing channels, operations and people mix. This requires unbelievable discipline. It becomes very easy to react unnecessarily and lose your direction.

Discipline, business alignment, operational efficiency and keeping all focused on delivering the basics well, will ensure success….

Rocket science….? Not really….! Don’t like to get your hands dirty, then chase the next new thing

Brew on July 05th, 2008 said

The reaction you are encountering is by no means a recent trend. Branding has been a somewhat polluted term in the business world for some while. The Consignia debacle did not help, but in truth I have been dealing with client skepticism about branding for years.

With the help of Prophet’s David Aaker, whose academic status gave branding a legitimacy it scarcely deserved, brand had been consistently oversold and misrepresented in the corporate world ever since the “Managing Brand Equity” gospel first appeared.

The Aaker commandments came replete with their own jargon — brand equity, brand positioning, brand architecture, brand portfolio, etc — that made branding sound as though it were based on universal laws and professional standards.

In reality, branding is an invention of the branding companies, all trying to out-define each other with their own carefully crafted definition of brand, increasingly arcane brand terminologies and proprietary brand development methodologies. Look, for example, at the terms down the side of this web page. Do we all agree on what they mean? Probably not. As you point out, there is little agreement about exactly what brand equity means, even though it is the primary tenet of David Aaker’s philosophy.

Little wonder then there is a pungent whiff of snake oil in executive nostrils whenever the term ‘brand’ is mentioned.

Even so, the jargon has seeped into the client world in an alarming fashion. There is a large Canadian bank that has a Manager, Brand Positioning. And the MBA student who rejected your suggestion of brand architecture for his PhD subject could have started by interviewing the person who holds the title of Manager of Brand Architecture at a large US office products company, if only to discover exactly what keeps him busy day after day.

The cause is little helped by the branding zealots who have read and memorized Aaker, Keller and Joachimsthaler and all books on Fusion Branding, Emotional Branding Viral Branding. For these, branding is the be-all-and-end-all and the only salvation for a CEO and his business, if only he would listen.

You say that despite some of its practitioners you have always “believed” in brands, as though branding were a quasi-religion that required an act of faith for its existence.

Brands are a fact. But the difficulty is that consumer branding theory does not translate too comfortably into the corporate world. Business-to-business companies, for example, have different structures, process, cultures and resource priorities. Their total available market may be only several thousand; their customers numbered in hundreds. Conversations in this situation about Procter & Gamble’s brand architecture, Apple’s brand strategy and ‘Lovemarks’ only serve to increase the prospect’s skepticism of branding.

They do like to talk about business issues that concern them in terms they know and understand, such as reputation, growth and value.

Branding is not about branding. It’s about business. Believe in that.

Andrew Sabatier on July 08th, 2008 said

All notions if pursued fail.

Individuals and organisations use brands to better understand how to make their way in the world. It is not helpful to attempt to make the notion of brand to fail. It would need to be replaced with something else more useful. But what?

Brand is not ultimate but it is useful. Brand attempts to find handles on very slippery notions, some of which find themselves in commercial space.

All discrete identities can be usefuly held as opinions and opinions can be usefully held as brands.

People trade in stories. They exchange value packaged and handled in the form of stories. Brands are stories. This is how people make sense of the world – physically, socially, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. If the definition of brand does not include these dimensions then the term should be abandoned. If brand consultants do not include these elements in consulting on brand then they too should be abandoned.

Brand is not just about business. Brand hasn’t been invented artificially for financial gain. Brand is latent in all trade. Some brands are just more effectively articulated than others and so make their way more effectively in the world.

Hazel on July 18th, 2008 said

“All discrete identities can be usefully held as opinions and opinions can be usefully held as brands”… Pardon? I think you have just proved the original point.

Andrew Sabatier on August 04th, 2008 said

What exactly is your point Hazel? That ‘branding desperately needs to rebrand’ itself? If this is your point then you should say so. And also how the statement you’ve chosen to highlight proves this? You need to show how the statement fails.

It is also important to note that at the outset I asserted that ‘all notions if pursued fail’, including the notion that ‘all notions if pursued fail’ in order to be self-referentially consistent.

All discrete identities can be usefully held as brands, all opinions can be usefully held as brands and all brands can be usefully held as opinions. This is what’s inferred by my statement. Opinions, identities and brands can be held as the same thing in order to treat them as the same thing.

‘Branding desperately needs to rebrand itself’, more than anything, points to the failure of the language space used to make sense of brands. I’m proposing we use a different language to make sense of brands. A language space established by conditions such as ‘can be usefully held as’ – not unrealisable absolute definitions which require little effort to make fail.

There are no absolutes in the world. Brands exist in the world and are therefore also subject to an absence of absolutes. And so we should avoid language which suggests there are absolutes. This why the term brand has been seen to fail, hence the need ‘to be rebranded’. Which, for the less philosophically inclined, is an inescapable paradox ie. branding still needs to be branded.

A broader, deeper and more flexible language space underpinned by a correspondent conceptual framework will enable us to guide brands (including ourselves as brands) more effectively in the world.

farah on September 16th, 2008 said

“Branding”- I wonder -why people are so disquiet with that obsession. Obviously it is not the easiest way to establish but also it is not unfeasible.

From my concern- it is like the combination of “Music & Mind”. If the tone of the music match with the impression of mind then and only then it reach to the heart.

In the same way if you can converse and counterpart the meaning of your product/service with your target markets then some how it will work out.

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