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Who Owns Your Brand?

Branding confuses me. This is probably not smart to admit, since I'm a chief marketing officer, but it's true. "Who's in charge of brand in your organization?" someone recently asked me. Well, er, hard to say. We've got rules and a rule-keeper, of course, but that's not being in charge of the brand. We do things to advance the firm as a whole rather than in close support of sales, but that doesn't have an owner, really. Brand seems to me to sit on the right side of an equals sign, to the left of which is a complex set of operations with an almost infinite number of variables. Brand is like culture in that respect, and can be equally diffuse and hard to get a handle on. Yet-also like culture-you can run the equation backwards, starting from the right and using the brand to affect all kinds of operations. A strong brand ought to show up not just your marketing but your r&d, HR practices, portfolio choices, purchasing, and more.

Take Disney. The first thing you notice (or I do) when you show up at a Disney resort in Orlando is that staffers are impervious to your grumpy mood, if you're in one. I was there recently for the digitalNow conference for association executives, run by Fusion Productions; I was running late enough that I was desperate to get checked in and upstairs in my room so I could receive a phone call from the office that was certain to be unpleasant, but there was a line with toddler-filled families and there was a small problem with the reservation due to a mix-up on my end...

No, this isn't a story about how a wise-beyond-his-years kid said, "Don't sweat the small stuff," while a cheerful front desk clerk turned Dickensian dark into Disney daylight. It's about the workshop that Nicole Lauria of the Disney Institute gave the next day about Disney's approach to brand loyalty, which reminded me that, actually, brand needn't be mysterious. When I started riffing on what Nicole said, I came up with five pretty simple observations:

  1. There's a difference between "brand" and "branding." You own your brand in a legal sense, but in real life it is owned by your customers and manifested in the attitudes they hold and the stories they tell. You can control branding--activities ranging from slogans to PR. But ultimately you can only influence, not control, your brand
  2. You're not the only one talking. Customers, competitors, media, NGOs, and employees are shaping your brand, too. Moreover, all of them have megaphones--Twitter, Facebook, the Web in general-that before were held only by professionals, whether in the press or among rivals. Remember "Yours Is a Very Bad Hotel"?
  3. Different customers find you in different places and relate to you in different ways. Kids come to Disney through stories, then characters, then merchandise, only eventually realizing there's a brand; adults may actually start with the brand, filtered through childhood memories of Duckburg. (Why anybody prefers mousey Mickey to Donald Duck is beyond me).
  4. The existence of different entry points creates two corollaries. First, you can create a door for each important entry point, and a path from it to your cash register. Second, however, you have only one brand, regardless of the number of entry points. If Disney smiled at children and smirked at their parents, it wouldn't work. Ever had the experience of losing premium status on an airline? Feels great to go from god to worm overnight, yes?
  5. Brand is ultimately about interactions, and the most powerful interactions involve real people. This being so, the most important thing ever written about branding was and remains "Putting the Service-Profit Chain to Work," the classic HBR article by Jim Heskitt, Thomas Jones, Gary Loveman, Earl Sasser, and Len Schlesinger. You don't have to be in a service business to know that the people who spend the most time around your company and its products are the primary creators and carriers of your brand. Unless you make mattresses or addictive apps, those people are your employees. Like Nicole and that front-desk clerk.
Illustration courtesy flickr user TerryJohnston
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