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A Boy and His Voice

What, Exactly, Is a Brand?

Friday, April 08, 2005

It all started with this article that Christopher Kenton wrote in the BusinessWeek.

In his definition, a brand is basically "just a name, a sign, or a symbol that distinguishes the products and services of one company from all others." It is "your name, your logo, your trade dress." In fact, he has even liken it to a "burning scar on the side of a cow." Now the interesting part comes in. He says that a brand is NOT about being a promise to the consumer of the quality of your product. It is also NOT about the expectation that consumers that begin to attach to your brand. Those are different things. In short, he's saying that a brand, is the physical, tangible thing and that you see.. and that brand experiences and brand equity are important.. but does NOT constitute a brand.. they are what he calls, "derivatives of brand."

Apparently, his definition of the word "brand" has (in his own words), "sparked a flood of polarized e-mails." Marketers argue that his seperation of the concept of brand - a name, a sign, or a symbol that distinguishes your products and services from competitors - from derivative concepts like brand image and brand equity was merely semanitc. (Read the whole of the follow-up article here.) His response was that if everybody had a different definition of brand, how do we (marketers) even know if we are communicating on a level ground and that everybody is talking about the same thing? And if we as marketers don't even know the REAL meaning of a brand, how are we going to convince our clients to part with the money to build a brand. "A brand is something you create. Brand Image is something you cultivate."

He goes on to give examples of other marketing terms that doesn't really have a standard definition and how detrimental it can be for marketers. (Read it here.) He also gave his take on what someone said in a letter to him that, "Marketing or branding is a qualitative aspect. It is not a 2+2 sum which will give you a definite answer. In marketing, you're playing with emotions and human psyche, not numbers." (Read his reply here.)

I apologise for the lengthy summary, but I find it a necessary evil for discussion when and if people are too lazy to read the whole article. Now, let's get on with the ranting..

To be honest, I have no idea what the buzz is about, because I agree with Kenton. I don't know about the rest of the world, but as a student, I find the endless definitions of what a brand is.. enlightening. Not. I just spoke to Andrea, a dear friend and brilliant writer. She was saying that Kenton's definition is so not what today's definition of brand. Now, if we have a yesterday's definition of brand, a today's definition of brand.. how are we going to predict tomorrow's definition of brand? And if everyone has their own definitions, how then are we (as marketers and advertisers), going to convince companies to part with their money; much less work on a common ground?

Actually, Christopher's definition is not that difficult to understand. Let’s take for example.. the brand, Apple. The word Apple, the logo and the colour is a brand. People see their products and their brand as fun, funky and modern. That’s the brand experience. Assuming Apple stops producing iMacs and funky gadgets, and instead focuses on mass producing black and beige boxes called the personal computer. Would people still see them as fun, funky and modern? The brand (Apple, logo and colour) remains the same, the brand experience doesn’t. You Dig?

Of course the brand experience and the brand equity is important.. but they’re just different things.. they’re there in relation to the brand. Different people may have different experiences, or feelings about the brand.. but the brand remains the same.

Regarding the letter that was addressed to Christopher mentioning that, marketing is about playing with emotions and human psyche, not numbers. I think he needs a new job. It’s not about number?! Com’on! It’s always about the numbers! Are you going to tell me you’re going to spend $2 million dollars on a marketing campaign to.. arouse audiences’ sensory, to tickle their funny bone and evoke their inner most desires.. without a promise of any returns? I would like to see him telling my lecturer that! Sure marketing is about emotions and human psyche, but more importantly, marketing is about using these emotions to try and ‘persuade’ customers to be more willing and open with their wallets the next time they see you.

Really, I don’t see any reason why separating the two can be so difficult. It actually makes it easier, no? Now you know what your brand is, you can build that experience that you want your brand to be associated with. Easy, no? The only reason I can think of for marketers to protest this notion so aggressively is their ego. Imagine being in the business for 20 years, and telling countless people that what you think the definition of a brand is; and then one day, someone tells you that whatever you ever thought was true, is not. How would you react? For the better good of everyone, I think they should sit down (after all the whining) and decide that it is best to have one common understanding of what a brand is. Go ahead, reject Christopher’s definition.. but please come up with one that everyone can agree on.

I (mildly) suspect that I have my personal reason for supporting Christopher’s point of view. Mainly because I feel that it makes sense.. and that it would be that much easier to convince my lecturer of my purpose if there was only one meaning to branding.

Now, I have given my take on things.. what's yous?

posted by fuzk, 11:36 pm


From a person who has only a passing interest in marketing, Christopher makes perfect sense. I remember myself reading No Logo, and having to (at least for the first few chapters) constantly remind myself that the word brand meant much more (e.g. encompassing experience, value, culture etc.) than what I initially thought it to mean—a trademark. Looking back, I believe I might have benefitted more reading the book, if clearer terms, such as those used by Christopher, were used.

By the way, nice idea of having such a blog. I have you subscribed on my feed reader, so I'll be expecting more insightful posts from you. :)
commented by Anonymous Jason, 6:23 am  
Branding is a term under constant evolution, consistent with market pressure. Long ago, people were surveyed and were asked, 1) "Winston tastes like a _____" and 2) "How do you spell relief ______?" Nearly everyone polled said, 1) cigarette should and 2) R-O-L-A-I-D-S. It strikes me that slogans aren't nearly as critical in branding as they once were. We're more concerned with image i.e. Apple being "cool" and "funky". Perhaps we'll go back to slogans. When that occurs, we'll change our perception of the term branding. For now, it seems like largely a semantical argument. Nice post.
commented by Blogger Vavoom, 1:43 pm  

No Logo is a book that I'm going to start reading once I'm finished with Beyond Disruption =)

Anyways, that's exactly the reason why I'm agreeing with Christopher's point of view, it makes things so much easier.

I'm glad you like my blog.. I can't promise more insightful posts.. but definitely my 2 cents on issues I feel as important =)
commented by Blogger fuzk, 6:47 pm  

Branding is indeed under-going constant evolution.. that's because more and more marketers are realising that the attachment a person feels for a brand is so valuable.. My arguement (and Christopher's) is that the attachment isn't the brand.

I was hoping not to get into the technicality of the language here.. but I guess it was inevitable.. haha..

Christopher, himself addressed that issue under the entry Beyond Brand Semantics and Brand Semantics 102 at http://www.marketonomy.com/

I guess you're right when you said it's largely a semantical arguement.. however, I personally feel that it's totally necessary.

Taking an example from Christopher, he said that the financial term Net Present Value (NPV) has only one meaning.. and anyone who has any idea of finance would know what NPV is. It's universal.

I feel that this is necessry for a term as huge and potentially powerful as branding. Everyone should know what it means.. universally.. one meaning.. so that as marketers and advertisers, they know what are the boundaries of a brand; because only when someone knows the boundaries, can they even begin to think how to go beyond that.

The question is: How do one think out of the 'box', when one doesn't know what is the 'box'?
commented by Blogger fuzk, 7:17 pm  
well juz stand in awe coz the power of branding is amazing =) but i like to look more deeply.. prolly the product core muz be decent lar..
commented by Anonymous Anonymous, 4:18 am  
I suppose that anticipation is key. In some sense, I always think that anticipation is a huge component of that whole "think outside of the box" thing. Good anticipation is largely a consequence of being as adaptive as your target group is.
commented by Blogger Vavoom, 1:02 pm  
commented by Anonymous Andrea, 11:14 am  
Brands make chicken essence right? :P
commented by Anonymous Adrian, 1:16 am  
How about rather then going along the notion of how to define brand, how about determining what causes consumers to digest certain brands and not others @ ipod vs zen micro?

How about one treating the understanding of brands as an egotistical attitude of an industry @ How do one define art and the commercial worth of a painting?

How about treating branding as just a commercial mean of categorising something intagible and non-existant @ What is world music?

How about going along the idea that the more objective you think you are, the further the distance you are from your audience?

How about just working on your next "Big Idea" and prays it sells?
commented by Anonymous Myron, 1:01 pm  
vavoom: I believe the whole thinking out of the box is more than anticipation. Being able to anticipate needs make you a good marketer, not a creative one.

Anticipating a need and fulfilling it is the 'basic' thing that a good marketer should do no?
commented by Blogger fuzk, 3:42 pm  
Andrea: I agree with you that the intangibles with be forever, till the end of time, be entrenched with the tangibles of a brand.

However, the tangibles and intangibles are 2 different things.

I have to disagree though.. that a brand is a person. A person may be a walking advertisement for a brand and it's values, personality, etc. But, he isn't the brand.. he's not a walking, giant tick ala nike.

You seem to be thinking along the same lines as me though, when you said that the value of the brand will move the consumer.

Ultimately, the value of the brand is what's important.. and it is easy to understand how, when pressed for a definition of a brand.. marketers talk about the values of the brand.. because these 2 things are so intricately linked.. it's difficult to pull them apart.

Thanks for taking the time to write a lengthy piece on your blog. Appreciate it. =)

PS. Dinner.. when?!
commented by Blogger fuzk, 4:53 pm  
Myron: IMHO, the differences between the said example, ipod and zen micro, is in the brandng. The Brand Representations, the Brand Value (what Andrea talked about in iconoclastic.blogspot.com)is what made the difference.

Branding, to a large extent, IS about categorizing what is intangible. How do you package an experience? How do you tell people that your brand is cool and trendy? That's what branding is about no? Communicating to the rest of the world what your brand value is and what your brand stands for.

IF you have a rich client, that cares nothing about money.. sure.. just work on a Big Idea and prays it sells. Unfortunately, I believe that are not too many clients of this type exists. A Big Idea is only useful, if it reaches your target audience, and the more you know about them, the better you know how to reach them.

so Myron.. when can we go to the zoo??
commented by Blogger fuzk, 5:14 pm  

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