Branding entails much more than simply affixing a clever logo to a product. In fact, the act of branding encompasses a wide range of marketing activities such as product design, name, packaging, advertising, and image projection—all of which are designed with one core purpose in mind: To differentiate a seller’s own product from competitors’ offerings. When effectively orchestrated, branding enables a product to stand out from a sea of products that otherwise might appear similar to consumers.
If brand managers focus on developing and conveying the points of distinction that matter most to consumers, the brand is likely to thrive and consumers are inclined to pay a premium price to acquire that product. A powerful brand, therefore, is one that commands a large brand premium and engenders a deep level of loyalty among its dedicated users. The best brands, according to marketing guru Philip Kotler, are ones that appeal to consumers on some higher emotional level, not just on the basis of a specific product attribute or benefit sought. While a product feature often can be easily imitated, it is more difficult for competitors to replicate a feeling generated by a compelling brand. Consumers may buy Coke, for instance, not for the taste alone, but also for the positive images and feelings that the product conjures through the company’s successful marketing and advertising campaigns.
Indeed, branding is all about good “story-telling,” as former English professor James Twitchell emphasizes. He means this not in a derogatory sense—not in the sense of brand managers creating malicious fictions. Rather, by “story-telling,” Twitchell means that the best marketers develop convincing and engaging narratives that suffuse their products with such vitality that consumers want to believe in them, use them, and endorse them to others. Consumers enjoy and trust their favorite brands, and the most passionate of them also will act as brand apostles, spreading the word about their brand’s perceived strengths.
It is easy to perceive why branding holds such appeal to sellers: Done right, branding offers them significant financial benefits. By eliciting consumers’ attention and generating positive interest as well as repeat sales, branding facilitates the selling of a greater number of products. Moreover, sellers generally can command higher prices for stronger brands than weaker ones.
But what about the advantages to branding for buyers? Critics maintain that branding is disadvantageous to consumers. As they argue, the process of creating and maintaining a brand is quite expensive, and those costs are invariably passed on to consumers. Critics also point out that branding, by making an emotional connection with consumers, can encourage irrational purchases, tricking consumers into buying what they do not need or what they cannot truly afford.
A defense of branding, however, also can be made: Branding can be good for consumers. Advocates emphasize that branding, by calling attention to the differences among products, plays a valuable role in helping overwhelmed consumers make decisions in a crowded marketplace. If consumers are pleased with a product’s performance, branding also can help consumers identify that product again, facilitating a repeat purchase and a very similar experience as their first time using it. Branding encourages product consistency and uniformity. Viewed in this light, brands therefore may be worth what consumers are willing to pay for them.
Although branding is most frequently associated with the world of consumer products (think, for example, of Coke, Tide, and Apple), it is important to remember that branding also extends to a plethora of other areas, such as nonprofit institutions, services, and ideas. As Twitchell notes, among the many diverse “products” that are branded are museums, churches, and colleges.
Even people can be branded. In fact, in the United States today, some parents are starting to enlist consultants to help them master the art of “branding” their newborn babies with the most effective names—names that allegedly will enable their babies to stand out from the crowd and hence increase their chances of success later in life. Celebrities also are routinely described as being the subjects of brand management. The proper development, cultivation, and maintenance of stars’ images can be critical to ensuring their sustained success. Celebrities also frequently engage in brand and line extensions, as they try to leverage their well-known names by attaching them to other product offerings such as perfume, jewelry, and dolls.
The Coca-Cola Conundrum
While it is often tempting for sellers to try to capitalize on a successful brand by expanding it in new directions, brand extension efforts, however, carry the risk of brand dilution. If an extension fails, it may harm the value of the underlying brand. In general, the higher the brand equity, the more risky it is to tamper in any way with the core brand. On a consumer product level, an often cited example of a bungled brand strategy decision was the launch of New Coke in 1984. The taste was supposed to be an improvement and in fact, some consumers did prefer it, yet the alteration in the formula alienated many loyal Coke consumers. Ultimately, in an effort to placate both sides, the company decided to revert to the original formula (renamed “Coca-Cola Classic”) but also to retain the updated version (“New Coke”).
While the Coca-Cola conundrum seems to illustrate the importance of marketers managing their brands carefully and prudently, a counter school of thought advises marketers to relinquish some of their control and instead empower consumers to help shape the brand. Marketing author and practitioner Alex Wipperfurth maintains that consumers should be encouraged to commit “brand hijack”—an essential takeover of the brand in which end users more than marketers drive the evolution of the product. Wipperfurth perceives this to be a win-win situation: consumers get exactly what they want, and marketers in turn sell more product.
Allowing consumers a relatively free hand in branding, however, can have negative consequences, such as an inconsistent brand image. Moreover, if a brand already possesses high stature, it may be riskier to adopt a more relaxed brand management policy than if the product is new or not yet widely known.
The process of creating a powerful and enduring brand therefore remains a challenging and complex task for marketers. While periodic efforts have been made to reduce branding to a set of rigid rules, branding remains more of an art than a science.
- Alexander Alter, “The Baby-Name Business,” Wall Street Journal (June 22, 2007);
- Del Breckenfeld, The Cool Factor: Building Your Brand’s Image Through Partnership Marketing (Wiley, 2008);
- John Gerzema and Edward Lebar, The Brand Bubble: The Looming Crisis in Brand Value and How to Avoid It (Jossey-Bass, 2008);
- Nigel Hollis, The Global Brand: How to Create and Develop Lasting Brand Value in the World Market (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008);
- Philip Kotler and Gary Armstrong, Principles of Marketing, 12th ed. (Pearson/Prentice-Hall, 2008);
- Tengku Chik Melewar bin Tengku Nasir and Elif Karaosmanoglu, Contemporary Thoughts on Corporate Branding and Corporate Identity Management (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008);
- Irving Rein, Philip Kotler, and Marty Stoller, High Visibility: The Making and Marketing of Professionals into Celebrities (Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1987);
- Al Ries and Laura Ries, The Origin of Brands (HarperBusiness, 2004);
- Brian D. Till and Donna Heckler, The Truth About Creating Brands People Love (FT Press, 2008);
- James B. Twitchell, Branded Nation: The Marketing of Megachurch, College Inc., and Museumworld (Simon & Schuster, 2004);
- William D. Tyler, “The Image, the Brand, and the Consumer,” Journal of Marketing (October 1957);
- Alex Wipperfurth, Brand Hijack: Marketing Without Marketing (Penguin Group, 2005).
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