Strategic Brand Management

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Brand And Business Building/Brand Building: From Product To Values, And Vice Versa

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Brand building: from product to values, and vice versa

It takes time to build a really strong brand. There are two routes, two models for doing so: from product advantage to intangible values, or from values to product. However, with time, this two-way movement becomes the essence of brand management: brands have two legs.

Most brands did not start as such: their founders just wanted to create a business, based on a very specific product or service: an innovation, a good idea to start their business and open the distributors’ closed doors. Through time, their name or the name of the product became a brand: well known and endowed with market power (the ability to influence buyers). It did not simply designate a product or a person, but little by little came to be associated with imagery, with intangible benefits, with brand personality and so on. Perception had moved upwards from objects to benefits, from tangible to intangible values.

As is shown by the upward-pointing arrow in figure below, most brands start not as brands but as a name on an innovative product or service. Nike started out as a meaningless name on a pair of innovative running shoes: if they had not been innovative no distributor would have paid attention to Phil Knight in the first place. With time, that name acquired awareness, status and trust, if not respect or liking.

This is the result of all the communication and stars which accompanied the business building. Little by little an inversion takes place in the process: instead of the product building the brand awareness and reputation (the bottom-up arrow of influence), it is the brand that differentiates and endows the product/service with its unique values (the top-down dotted arrow). In fact at this time the brand determines which new products match its desired image. Nike is now in the phase of brand extensions: the brand has stretched from running shoes to sports apparel and now golf clubs.

Through time, brand associations typically move up a ladder (the vertical axis of Figure below), from ingredient (Dove with hydrating cream) to attribute (softening), to benefit (protection), to brand personality, brand values and even mission (Apple or Virgin have a mission), at the very top intangible end.

Now this does not mean that, with time, brand management should not be concerned with material issues and differentiation any more. Brands are two-legged. Even luxury brands, bought for the sake of show, must give their buyers the feeling that they have bought a great product and that the price difference is legitimate. But material differentiation is a never-ending race: competitors copy your best ideas. Attaching the brand to an intangible value adds value and prevents substitutability.  The Mercedes price premium is permanently explained by product-based advertising copy, but also by PR operations that accentuate the unique status of the brand.

This first model concerns brands that started as a product. There exists a second model of brand building: many brands start as concepts or ideas. This is true of all licensed brands (Paloma Picasso perfume, Harry Potter products and so on) and of many fashion brands, spirits or cigarette brands. The Axe men’s hygiene line started from an insight as well: teenagers feel insecure about their sex appeal.

This model also provides a reminder that even when launching a product brand (that is, a brand based on a product advantage) it is important to incorporate from the start the higher levels of meaning that are intended to attach to the brand in the longer term. The brand should not simply acquire them, by accumulation or sedimentation; they should be planned from the start and incorporated at birth. Incorporating this perspective from the start accelerates the process by which products become brands.

This is why product launch and brand launch are not the same. This is also why brand names should never be descriptive of the product. The first reason is that what is descriptive soon becomes generic, when competitors come into the market with the same product. Second, clients will soon learn what the business is about. Names should better aim at telling an intangible story. Amazon speaks of newness, force and abundance (like the River Amazon), and Orange says ‘definitely non-technical’, just as Apple Computers did 25 years earlier.

The two models of brand building through time

Finally, as is illustrated by the two dotted arrows of the graph, brand management consists of a permanent coming and going between tangible and intangible values. Brands are two-legged value producing systems. This means that having an excellent product is not enough in modern competition. However, neither luxury nor image brands can afford to forget the functional realities of products.