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What is a brand?

A column on adage.com today discusses a widely known secret in our industry – we're in the brand-building business, yet no two professionals seem to share the same definition of a brand.

Some define a brand as a promise.  Some define it as an idea.  While others define a brand as mash-up of rational and emotional benefits.  There's likely an element of truthiness to each definition.

The article challenged me to set down in writing my beliefs about brands – a point-of-view formed over the years through different experiences and inputs.  So here goes...


Brands are based on an empathetic relationship with customers.

When I grew up at Ogilvy, Charlotte Beers used to preach that brands are defined by relationships.  That got me thinking, and over the years I tightened that definition to focus on the power of empathy.  I believe people choose brands the same way they choose their friends. Walk into a crowded party where you don't know a soul and notice who you end up chatting with – someone with whom you have something in common.

Empathy is how we bond with one another; it is also how brands bond with customers.  We gravitate toward brands that get us; that share our sense of humor; that share our values; that make us feel good about ourselves.  Define the basis of your brand's empathy toward its customers and you'll get to the essential truth of your brand.

More and more we are witnessing a third party in this relationship – our peers.  In a social media environment, brands are increasingly based on the relationship that exists between the product and the customer and the other customers who use the product.  This observation is why I coined the term wikibranding.  (My former boss at Saatchi, Kevin Roberts wrote a great book called Lovemarks; perhaps his sequel should be "Brands: A menage a trois.")

Brand equity is not a static metric – it is the combination of four essential dynamics:  differentiation, relevance, esteem and knowledge.

When I was President of Y&R Irvine I worked closely with a brand equity model called Brand Asset Valuator.  BAV, the world's largest database on brand equity, demonstrates across hundreds of categories, time after time, country after country, that brand equity is built by the sequence and relationship between a brand's levels of differentiation, relevance, esteem and knowledge (aka, DREK, a very unfortunate acronym).  Of these four dyanamics, relevance and differentiation are most important:  relvance = volume, while differentiation = margin.  Define a specific and tangible strategy for these dynamics and you will have a clear plan for building brand equity.

Experiences transform brand image into brand beliefs.

Customers judge brands on what they do, not just by what they say.  This has always been true, but is amplified ten-fold in a social media world.  When I see a compelling brand ad I will absorb it and remember it.  When I engage a brand in a unique experience – sampling, a cool app, helpful online experience, an event – I will tweet about it.

Great brands tell great stories.

Stories help us understand.  They convey meaning.  And in a fast moving world, meaning trumps information.  Too many brands get bogged down in lists of nouns and adjectives. Brands are verbs; like characters in a story, they do things.

The approach I've developed over time for creating persuasive brand narratives involves identifying your archetypal personality (the universal characters that form our collective unconscious), the hero's journey (the brand's true north, why it exists) and conflict (great literature hinges on a clearly defined antagonist; great brands define what they stand for by being equally clear about what they oppose).

Alas, if it was only that easy.  Greatness is in the execution.  And some brands simply out-execute other brands.  They convey an infectious sense of momentum through purposeful innovation.  And they embrace marketing's "new normal" and eschew tired distinctions between offline and online, traditional and nontraditional.

In the end, one may debate whether I'm right or wrong, but not where I stand on the issue; nor the fact that I've been fortunate to have worked for some smart people over my career.  Thank you all.

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