What does branding really mean? - Strategic Brand Management

Branding means much more than just giving a brand name and signalling to the outside world that such a product or service has been stamped with the mark and imprint of an organisation. It requires a corporate long-term involvement, a high level of resources and skills.

Branding consists in transforming the product category

Brands are a direct consequence of the strategy of market segmentation and product differentiation. As companies seek to better fulfil the expectations of specific customers, they concentrate on providing the latter, consistently and repeatedly, with the ideal combination of attributes – both tangible and intangible, functional and hedonistic, visible and invisible – under viable economic conditions for their businesses.

Companies want to stamp their mark on different sectors and set their imprint on their products. It is no wonder that the word ‘brand’ also refers to the act of burning a mark into the flesh of an animal as a means to claim ownership of it. The first task in brand analysis is to define precisely all that the brand injects into the product (or service) and how the brand transforms it:

  • What attributes materialise?
  • What advantages are created?
  • What benefits emerge?
  • What ideals does it represent?

This deep meaning of the brand concept is often forgotten or wilfully omitted. That is why certain distributors are often heard saying – as a criticism of many a manufacturer’s brand whose added value lies only its name – ‘For us, the brand is secondary, there is no need to put something on the product. ’ Hence, the brand is reduced to package surface and label. Branding, though, is not about being on top of something, but within something. The product or service thus enriched must stand out well if it is to be spotted by the potential buyer and if the company wants to reap the benefits of its strategy before being copied by others.

Furthermore, the fact that a delabelled item is worth more than a generic product confirms this understanding of branding. According to the ‘brand is just a superficial label’ theory, the delabelled product supposedly becomes worthless when it no longer carries a brand name, unless it continues to bear the brand within. In passing, the brand has intrinsically altered it:

hence the value of Lacostes without ‘Lacoste’, Adidases without ‘Adidas’. They are worth more than imitations because the brand, though invisible, still prevails. Conversely, the brand on counterfeits, though visible, is in effect absent. This is why counterfeits are sold so cheaply.

Some brands have succeeded in proving with their slogans that they know and understand what their fundamental task is: to transform the product category. A brand not only acts on the market, it organises the market, driven by a vision, a calling and a clear idea of what the category should become. Too many brands wish only to identify fully with the product category, thereby expecting to control it. In fact they often end up disappearing within it: Polaroid, Xerox, Caddy, Scotch, Kleenex have thus become generic terms.

According to the objective the brand sets itself; transforming the category implies endowing the product with its own separate identity. In concrete terms, that means that the brand is weak when the product is ‘transparent’. Talking about ‘Greek olive oil, first cold pressing’ for example, makes the product transparent, almost entirely defined and epitomized by those sole attributes, yet there are dozens of brands capable of marketing that type of oil. Going from bulk to packaging isalso symptomatic of this phenomenon. The weakness of fresh vacuum-packed food brands is partially due to the fact that their packaging, though designed to reassure the buyer – such as with sauerkraut in film-wrapped containers – only recreates transparency.

A brand is a long-term vision
The brand should have its own specific point of view on the product category. Major brands have more than just a specific or dominating position in the market: they hold certain positions within the product category. This position and conception both energise the brand and feed the transformations that are implemented for matching the brand’s products with its ideals. It is this conception that justifies the brand’s existence, its reason for being on the market, and provides it with a guideline for its life cycle.

How many brands are capable today of answering the following crucial question: ‘What would the market lackif we did not exist?’ The company’s ultimate goal is undoubtedly to generate profit and jobs. But brand purpose is something else. Brand strategy is too often mistaken for company strategy. The latter most often results in truisms such as ‘increase customer satisfaction’. Specifying brand purpose consists in (re)defining its raison d’être, its absolute necessity. The notion of brand purpose is missing in most marketing textbooks.

It is a recent idea and conveys the emerging conception of the brand, seen as exerting a creative and powerful influence on a given market. If there is power, there is energy. Naturally, a brand draws its strength from the company’s financial and human means, but it derives its energy from its specific niche, vision and ideals. If it does not feel driven by an intense internal necessity, it will not carry the potential for leadership. The analytical notion of brand image does not clearly capture this dynamic dimension, which is demanded by modern brand management.

Thus, many banks put forward the following image of themselves: close to their clients, modern, offering high-performing products and customer service. These features are, of course, useful to market researchers in charge of measuring the perceptions sent back by the market and the level of consumer satisfaction. But from which dynamic programme Do they emanate, which vision do they embody?Certain banks have specified what their purpose is: for some it is ‘to change people’s relationship to money’, while for others it is to remind us that money is just a ‘means towards personal development’. Several banks have recently worked at redefining their singular reason for existence. All of them will have to do so in the future. The Amex vision of money is not that of Visa.

More than most, multi-segment brands need to re determine their own purpose. Cars are a typical example. A multi-segment brand(also called a generalist brand) wants to coverall market segments. Each model spawns multiple versions, thereby theoretically the number of potential buyers:diesel, gas, three or five doors, estate, coupé, cabriolet, etc.

The problem is that by having to constantly satisfy the key criteria of each segment (bottom range, lower mid-range, upper mid-range and top range), ie to churn out many different versions and to avoid overtypifyinga model in order to please everyone, companies tend to create chameleon brands. Apart from the symbol on the car hood or the similarities in the car designs, we no longer perceive an overall plan guiding the creative and productive forces of the company in the conception of these cars. Thus, competitors fight their battles either over the price or the options offered for that price. No longer brands, they become mere names on a hoodor on a dealer’s office walls. The word has thus lost most of its meaning. What does Opel or Ford mean?

What unifies the products of a brand is not their marquee or common external signs, it is their ‘religion’: what common spirit, vision and ideals are embodied in them.

Major brands can be compared to a pyramid(see Figure below). The top states the brand’svision and purpose – its conception of automobiles, for instance, its idea of the types of cars it wants, and has always wanted, to create, as well as its very own values which either can or cannot be expressed by a slogan. This level leads to the next one down, which shows the general brand style of communication . Indeed, brand personality and style are conveyed less by words than by a way of being and communicating.

These codes should not be exclusively submitted to the fluctuating inspiration of the creative team: they must be defined so as to reflect the brand’s unique character. The next level presents the brand’strategic image features: amounting to four or five, they result from the overall vision and materialise in the brand’s products, communication and actions. This refers, for example, to the positioning of Volvo as a secure, reliable and robust brand, or of BMW as a dynamic, classy prestigious one. Lastly, the product level, at the bottom of the pyramid, consists of each model’s positioning in its respective segment.

The brand system

The brand system

The problem is that consumers look at the pyramid from the bottom up. They start with what is real and tangible. The wider the pyramid base is, the more the customers doubt that all these cars do indeed emanate from the same automobile concept, that they carry the same brand essence and bear the stamp of the same automobile project. Brand management consists, for its part, in starting from the top and defining the way the car is conceived by the brand, in order to determine exactly when a car is deserving of the brand name and when it no longer is – in which case, the car should logically no longer bear the brand name, as it then slips out of its brand territory.

As automobile history is made of great successes followed by bitter failures, major multi-segment brands regularly question their vision. Thus, after its smash hit models, the205 and 405, Peugeot was somewhat perturbed, both internally and externally, by the series of setbacks with the 605 and the slow take-off of the 106 and 306. A basic question was then asked: ‘Are Peugeots still Peugeots?’ Answering it implied redefining the long-term meaning of the statement ‘It’s aPeugeot’, ie the brand’s long-lasting automobile concept.

Internal hesitation about brand identity is often revealed when searching for slogans. here is no longer a trend toward obvious and meaningless slogans such as ‘the automobile spirit’, which neither tell us anything about the brand’s automobile ideal, nor help to guide inventors, creators, developers or producers in making concrete choices between mutually exclusive features: comfort and road adherence, aero dynamism and feeling of sturdiness, etc.

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