Posted by: kevinliebl | May 4, 2009

Who owns the brand?

Madmen - Pitching the Brand

Madmen - Pitching the Brand

There was a time when marketers and advertising executives created and drove brand strategies that easily manipulated consumers and businesses.  Think Madmen, the popular television show.  Many businesses still think that the millions, or hundreds of millions of dollars they are spending, are having the same direct impact.

Unfortunately, they are mistaken.  Yes, they are influencing brand perception, but there are two factors that have shifted ownership of the brand from the company to the marketplace.  First, consumers and businesses have become much more sophisticated in how they think about brands.  They no longer blindly believe information provided by the vendor.  They chose to make decisions about a brand for themselves based on all the information available to them.  Secondly, and more importantly, markets are talking.  Markets are organizing and sharing information.  Therefore, the newly sophisticated customer has far more accurate, credible and timely information than they ever had before.  The truth is that the brand belongs to the market, not the company.  The market decides what the brand will become based on all the available information.  The Internet has rapidly changed this dynamic by making product feedback almost instantaneous.  Users share positive and negative reviews on broad social networking forums. The brand exists, lives and breathes in the market itself, not within the company.  The best that the company can hope to do is add value to the brand by providing the best quality product/service and then promote (communicate) that value to the market.

A key success factor is to recognize your true brand and align your marketing efforts around it.  Companies often fail because they position their products/services as something that they aren’t, and the market doesn’t accept the rhetoric.  Don’t fight the market – it doesn’t lie.

A reality is hitting many companies today.  Online communities are forcing transparency and honesty like never before.  If your branding strategy is to position your company as having the highest quality business travel luggage, but your failure/return rate is higher than industry average, you will fail.  Online reviews and chat rooms will expose you faster than you can issue new advertising campaigns or product improvements.  If you claim to have the fastest and easiest to configure wireless router, you had better back it up – your customers are talking.  Remember, they own the brand – you don’t.  However, don’t assume this is bad.  If you provide a quality product or service, the online communities will give you the best advertising money can’t buy!

Action Item: Listen to your customers.  Listen to the market and determine if your company/product/market strategies align with the market-determined brand.  If not, take action.


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  1. Hi Kevin,

    If I could take it a step further… would say that the brand belongs to the consumer.. and most of them shape the brands through their experiences and beliefs. Most brands today fail to go beyond creating perceptions. Like you mentioned, the dynamic information environment we live in today, its very easy for a sham to be called so and the conventional thinking when it comes to brand and communication is not going to work. Unfortunately the digital speak and social networks is just lip service by most marketers… part of the 360 surround of a campaign.. While I think in the west things have moved a little, in India we are still about the conventional approach and pity is that its the clients who are extremely straitjacketed.

  2. A very interesting perspective. I tend to agree with you that we are very much on the front-end of this change. Most marketing executives have not recognized the impact that Internet communities are having on brand perceptions. I believe, that this change may occur rapidly however. The impact of instant communication among the consumers could have profound effects on brands, which leads to market share, revenues and ultimately company profitability. Time will tell. Excellent comments!

  3. This is a misunderstanding of Marketing. Marketing Communications is but one aspect of Marketing. The product is another. And they, along with a whole host of other aspects, work in tandem.

    The statement that promotional messaging may not be backed up by product realities – is a failure of marketing, not just because of the messaging, but because of the product, as well.

    • Sean – Excellent points. There are many aspects of marketing and most companies break these disciplines up into different groups often around internal vs. external efforts (e.g., product marketing, marketing communications). There are other elements that are often incorporated such as public relations and analyst relations. A comprehensive marketing effort needs to unite all of these (and additional other) efforts.

      Your second point is also valid. Outbound messaging that misrepresents the product can be a failure on multiple fronts: 1) the outbound promotional effort, 2) the product marketing effort; and possibly 3) the engineering effort. It depends on where the breakdown occurred. Is it being misrepresented? Is it being designed wrong? Is it simply poorly engineered and manufactured?

      The point I was making in the post was that in the past, this could be corrected quickly without a large portion of your market realizing it. Today, social networks spread the word faster than ever before. Therefore, it is more difficult to respond before the damage is done.

      Take a look at my most recent post on value propositions – “Curly” Was Right! This speaks to creating a value proposition that communicates clearly and accurately with your market.

      Great comment. Thanks!

  4. Hi Kevin. Great site overall and very informative.
    However, as in the “old days” I have to respectfully disagree with you slightly.

    I do not believe the market owns the brand, but rather the perception of the brand. The company still needs to assure that they understand their customers’ views, and in doing so will help shape the customers perspective. Take Enron as an example. While it is true the customer and consumer developed a negative feeling about what the brand stands for, Enron ultimately owned their brand and the negative thoughts that are now associated with it.

    Companies now more than ever need to not only take ownership of their brand, but need to help mold it into something the customer and consumer view as value added. To do that, companies need to spend some time within their own walls, using the best resource available to them to promote their brand – their employees. What better brand ambassadors are there than those who live and work within the walls of the company, and beyond, almost every day.

  5. Bill – Thanks for the comment. It is a great debate and the perspective on brand “ownership” fundamentally influences the way we approach shaping the brand.

    From my perspective, I believe that companies own a “responsibility to influence the brand” and I believe this is where we agree. I am not implying that companies should stop their branding efforts. The opposite is true. Your second paragraph is absolutely correct. Now, more than ever, they need to leverage the tools available to influence brand perception. There are many more tools available to understand brand perception and influence it along the way.

    However, companies need to recognize that now more than ever, the market itself is influencing the brand. Never before have customers had the ability to reach other customers so easily. Let’s take movies as an example. In the past, the studios relied on movie critics to give a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” and it meant everything to the success or failure of a movie. “Word of mouth” had limited influence because it was one-to-one communication. Today, online dialog is one to many and can influence a movie instantaneously. Within hours of a major release, online movie sites gather hundreds of thousands of ranks and give very accurate feedback on viewers perceptions. Most movie-goers are more interested in the average ranking of the mass market than one critic’s view.

    An extreme example of this is the movie “Snakes on a Plane”. The movie studios tested this market shift by “leaking” information about the movie to the internet. Movie enthusiasts began to “chatter” about the movie and a huge amount of hype was created. The studios leveraged this trend to create significant pent up demand for the movie. They actually allowed internet champions to influence the script and change the plot-line. This is a great example of how you can turn a loss of control into a positive.

    This shift of power is a the same for consumer products, B2B solutions and company brand equity. More and more frequently, the customer view of a product, service or company is being shared online and influencing brand perception far more effectively than can be done by the internal marketing department.

  6. Fair comments and good points.

    However, I still tend to think that at the moment, your stated trend is more prevalent within the consumer markets than with B2B.

  7. […] has a brand. If you ask your colleagues to describe you, what would they say? I firmly believe that none of us “own” our own brand. The market owns the brand. The market determines what our brand is. I can say that my brand is […]

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