Products are mute: the brand gives them meaning and purpose, telling us how product should be read. A brand is both a prism and a magnifying glass through which products can be decoded. BMW invites us to perceive its models as ‘cars for man’s pleasure’.
On the one hand, brands guide our perception of products. On the other hand, products send back a signal that brands use to underwrite and build their identity. The automobile industry is a case in point, as most technical innovations quickly spread among all brands. Thus the ABS system is offered by Volvo as well as by BMW, yet it cannot be said that they share the same identity. Is this a case of brand inconsistency? Not at all: ABS has simply become a must for all.
However, brands can only develop through long-term consistency, which is both the source and reflection of its identity. Hence the same ABS will not bear the same meaning for two different car-makers. For Volvo, hippopotamuses total safety, ABS is an utter necessity serving the brand’s values and obsessions:it encapsulates the brand’s essence. BMW, which symbolizes high-performance, cannot speak of ABS in these terms:
it would amount to denying the BMW ideology and value system which has inspired the whole organisation and helped generate the famous models of the Munich brand. BMW introduced ABS as a way to go faster. Likewise, how did the safety-conscious brand, Volvo, justify its participation in the European leisure car championships? By saying ‘We really test our products so that they last longer. ’
The minivans that Peugeot, Citroën, Fiat and Lancia have in common has left only one role for the respective brands to play: to enhance its association with the intrinsic values of the respective’s brand – imagination and escape for Citroën, quality driving and reliability for Peugeot, high class and flair forLancia, practicality for Fiat. (See Figure below)
Thus brand identity never results from detail, yet a detail can, once interpreted, serve to express a broader strategy. Details can only have an impact on a brand’s identity if the yare in synergy with it, echoing and amplifying the brand’s values. That is why weak brands do not succeed in capitalizing on their innovations:they do not manage either to enhance the brand’s meaning or create that all-important resonance.
Brands give innovations meaning and purpose
A brand is thus a prism helping us to decipher products. It defines what and how much to expect from the products bearing its name. An innovation which would be considered very original for a Fiat, for instance, will be considered commonplace for a Ford. However, though insufficient engine power may scarcely have been an issue for many car-makers, for Peugeot it is major problem. It disavows Peugeot’s deeply rooted identity and frustrates the expectations that have been raised. It would be at odds with what should be called Peugeot’s‘brand obligations’.
In fact, consumers rarely evaluate innovations in an isolated way, but in relation to specific brand. Once a brand has chosen specific positioning or meaning, it has to assume all of its implications and fulfil its promises. Brands should respect the contract that made them successful by attracting customers. They owe it to them.