May 27, 2007

How often do you get to sit down and think about the answer to the question, "what is a brand?" I'm relatively lucky because I get to sit and think about it almost everyday. I used to not be a believer in the power of brands, but I eventually changed my tune and feel they are indeed necessary to achieve lasting growth when you build a company, product or service. That being said, the last few years have seen a radical evolution in the way a brand is built and managed, almost to the point where the evolution of a brand is more of a revolution of the brand.

In order to understand the difference, we need to revisit the definition of a brand. The dictionary definition is as follows:

1. Kind, grade, or make, as indicated by a stamp, trademark, or the like: the best brand of coffee.
2. A mark made by burning or otherwise, to indicate kind, grade, make, ownership, etc.
3. A mark formerly put upon criminals with a hot iron. (note: thankfully, this is not in wide use anymore and not relevant for this discussion)

A couple of other definitions further down the page go as follows:

11. To impress indelibly: The plane crash was branded on her mind.
12. To give a brand name to: branded merchandise.
13. To promote as a brand name.


Summarizing these various definitions, I see that a brand is a unique descriptor tied to one product, idea or service. It is meant to impress upon the viewer or audience a message that describes the product and differentiates it from the competition. The problem is that people spend a lot of money to try and broadcast a brand to their customers -- and historically, they've never reacted to what the audience tells them their brand truly is!

In marketing today, the power of a brand is in defining the experience. If the promise of the experience matches the actual experience itself, then your brand is what you said it is. If the experience is different than the promise, then you have to listen to the audience and adjust accordingly.

The evolution of a brand would be a gradual change that meets the needs of the current customer. If you look at the strongest brands in U.S. history, you will see their gradual evolution, especially in the world of packaged goods, which tends to listen well to customers and evolve its messaging over time.

The revolution of brands comes when you see immediate changes to the brand itself as a direct result of customer experience. In today's marketplace, the changes happen more rapidly and as a direct result of customer feedback. In truth, the power of your brand is directly proportional to the speed at which you can respond.

For example, auto manufacturers are in a rut these days, especially those based on the U.S. The Detroit Three, as they are now called, are not reacting quickly to the feedback and the needs of their customers, and as a result we are seeing the gradual decline of these companies and their brands. Toyota, on the other hand, has built a business that rivals and in some cases exceeds the traditional leadership, based on listening to the customer. It is developing hybrid vehicles and hipper, newer brands to be customized, such as Scion. Toyota utilizes digital media to create a connection with the consumer and provide an immediate line for feedback on an ongoing basis.

Additionally, the company recognizes the "remix culture" (as coined by Radar Research), and provides a means for its brand to integrate into this culture. By doing so, Toyota takes the chance that the consumer may react negatively, or change the overall impression of its brand. But it takes that risk willingly, knowing that success is dependent on delivering what you promise. If you deliver on the promise, your brand will succeed.

The Brand Revolution comes from this simple fact: Your brand is only as strong as the tie between the message and the people who react to it. The revolution is in the hands of the consumer. It is very much a bourgeois revolution, run by the masses, for the masses, and by the masses. That means, if you let them control your brand, but you deliver on its promise, then it will succeed. This is not something that everyone is comfortable with, hence the revolution concept. Sometimes you have to leave your comfort zone in order to succeed.

It's not new, I know. Many, many Internet brands are doing it, in publishing as well as television. That's why "Heroes" does so well. That's why "Lost" is doing so well (again). It's why reality TV does so well. It's because they invite the consumer along for the ride, and they listen and they react. They invite consumers into the process to define the mark that will be "impressed indelibly on the mind of the consumer," thereby affecting the actual brand itself.

It's really just a matter of perspective and trust. If you have the new perspective, and you trust in your consumer, then success can be achieved!

Don't you agree?

By Cory Treffiletti
Cory Treffiletti is a managing partner at Catalyst: Strategy and Insights.
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