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September 28, 2005
Are You Really A 'Brand'? A New Brand Continuum for the 21st Century

Today everybody from clothing designers to celebrities claims to be a "brand." Seems it's the latest cool thing. Announcements of new "brands" fill time on shows like Access Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight, but ultimately the products and services must face the realities of the marketplace—and the consumers—if they are to survive. Questions—even unarticulated ones—are raised by consumers; Are you a brand? What do you have to offer? How are you different from others in the category? How are you better? Do you represent values that resonate with consumers? If so, which ones? Are you infused with values that are, well, valuable to them and make them feel valued?

It's no secret that more and more companies are having problems differentiating themselves from their competitors. The Total Quality and Process Re-Engineering movements of the last two decades of the 20th Century pretty much assured that companies that made it to the 21st Century were going to be indistinguishable from one another. Many, like General Motors and The Gap and Coke risk turning into the ACME Car/ Clothing/ Cola Companies. Many, like AT&T, just disappeared.

But real brands do exist and thrive. They do so on the basis of actually owning and being founded upon values—real or perceived—that are meaningful to customers, values that will differentiate them from their competitors. The degree to which they actually possess these values, and have meaning in the consumers' lives (beyond primacy of product), will determine their degree of "brandness."

Brand Keys, Inc., a New York-based brand and customer loyalty research consultancy, conducted an analysis of nearly 700 products and services via their Customer Loyalty Index®. The customer assessments of the products and services—(which predict how positively, or negatively, consumers will act towards the products) revealed that there exists a continuum along which all products and services can be defined—and placed.

While conducting this research, Brand Keys realized that there is really an entirely new category for products and services that used to be brands, but are no longer brands as 21st Century consumers define them. They called this segment "Category Placeholders."

To facilitate "locating" product and services in terms of their abilities to be a brand, Brand Keys created the Commodity-to-Human Brand Continuum. This new continuum allows marketers to sidestep semantic arguments, accurately situate their products and services, and more effectively and strategically market on the basis of the products' real status.

Here are some brief definitions of where "products and services" might fall. The visual of the continuum provides some specific examples for each category, with the degree of "brandness" escalating as one migrates from left to right. Although, marketed properly, one can be quite profitable as a "label." Fortunes have, after all, been amassed dealing in mere "commodities. Are you a...

Commodity: Products and service so basic that they cannot be differentiated in the minds of the consumer. Usually sold on price.

Label: The name of a retail store or manufacturer selling clothing identifying the goods.

Designer Label: Well known/regarded name of person who has "designed" the clothing. Usually denoting or pretending to "high fashion." Note that it is possible - and often profitable - for "Human Brands" to migrate backwards to create another leverageable consumer contact point.

Category Placeholder: This is the new - and accurate - designation for products or services that maintain strong awareness in their category, but have values so basic, and so devoid of special meaning, that they cannot be differentiated from the competition in the minds of the consumer.

21st Century Brand: Name, term, symbol or a combination that identifies the goods and services of one seller versus another, and is so strongly imbued with values and articulated meaning as to be easily and strongly differentiated from the competition. (Today this also incorporates many of what were once derisively called "store brands," more kindly, “private-label,” some of which are now more valued by consumers—and more profitable—than traditional brands!)

The research identified five sub-segments by which 21st Century Brands are often represented (Click Here to download the supplemental PPT Presentation):

  • Celebrity Spokesperson: Person with high awareness and moderate-to-high personal values that can be "borrowed" by the product or service that the spokesperson endorses. It has two main sub-groups;
  • Celebrity Voiceovers and Celebrity Models: where leverage is attained via use of voice, face or figure.
  • Founder: Name of the person who created the company.
  • Trade Character: Symbols, often cartoons, in the form of animals, people or animated characters used to represent or create an association with the product and service.
  • Specialty Brand (1): A half-way point between Founder and Human Brand, usually denoting a specialized category like (for example) chefs and cooking who, once attaining some rank on the Commodity-to-Human-Brand-Continuum, are able to "migrate" back and introduce lines of labeled cooking related products.
  • Specialty Brand (2): A segment of brands where specialty products and services reside. Colleges and universities, for example. To quote Thomas W. Bruce, Cornell University's vice president of community and university relations, "Branding should not be a dirty word in academia." (This is one reason why Beaver College in Philadelphia changed its name to Arcadia University.)
  • Human Brand: An actual human being, most often the company founder, who represents 100% of the values of the company. This designation represents the highest level of imbued meaning, values and differentiation. [Dotted line indicates, as previously mentioned, that after a time the values of the Human Brand can be profitably "migrated" back to be used as a label, e.g., Michael Jordan]
  • "Gangsta" Brand: Sub-segment of Human Brand, in or just out of prison, where notoriety and the whiff of danger have become viewed as positive values, even badges of honor, in the minds of some consumer segments. There are Gangsta Wannabe's too, like Steve Madden, who aspired to the publicity Martha Stewart's imprisonment engendered. But, alas, he's just a "Designer Label" no matter how much he yearns for the notoriety.

Discussions of semantic differences are fine for classrooms and conferences, but out in the real brand marketplace, today's marketers must be able to accurately pinpoint their products' and services' brand bona fides. Doing so is the best way for them to effectively and strategically plan, promote, market—even price—on the basis of the products' real status as a "brand." Do that and you virtually guarantee cost-effective and profitable marketing activities, whatever your actual standing.

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Robert Passikoff, Founder and President of Brand Keys, Inc., has 35 years experience in strategic brand planning for B2B and B2C product and service categories. He pioneered work in loyalty and engagement, creating the Brand Keys Customer Loyalty Engagement Index®, the Brandweek Loyalty Leaders List, the Sports Fan Loyalty Index®, and the Women's Wear Daily Fashion Brand Engagement Index®.

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