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August 15, 2007
With all the talk about "branding," shouldn't we agree on what brands really are?

Nearly every time I read an article about marketing, sales, advertising or public relations, I am confronted with the word "brand" and its various parts of speech: brand, branded, branding. Often, the better word would be "product," "service," "advertising" or "marketing." Sometimes it seems there is no understanding of the word or the process, an indication of the invasion of amateurs in our marketing communications industry.

In this world of Web 2.0, people throw the "b word" around carelessly, diminishing its value and degrading its definition. "Brand" is an important little word. For those of us who have spent our lives building brands, the misuse and distortion of this vital word undermines the marketing communications industry, if not the entire free enterprise system. James Walter Thompson, a branding pioneer, would be appalled.

Merriam-Webster says branding is: the promoting of a product or service by identifying it with a particular brand. In the marketing sense, a brand isn’t really a brand until it exists in the hearts and minds of consumers. A product in a package on a shelf in a store is not a brand unless consumers are aware of it and care about it. It’s like the old philosophical riddle: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? It is a matter of perception. Sound is only sound if a person hears it. A brand is only a brand if consumers recognize it.

Brands are at the center of our capitalist system. Without them, we would face a world of dull generic products and services with limited selection and little motive for innovation. Conversely with brands, we have a rich selection of products and services and endless innovation driven by competition between brands. Remember when supermarkets made a big effort to establish "no-name" substitutes for many major brand categories? Generic cornflakes could not cut it against Kellogg’s branded product. Now it seems generics are no longer considered serious contenders in any major packaged goods segments.

Brands drive American business. Agencies and the entire communications industry would not exist without them! Brands exist because business leaders know brands are at the core of their balance sheets. Their contract with their loyal users is to consistently deliver brand benefits. Because communications plays the central role in brand building, businesses make huge investments to communicate brand benefits to their customers.

A product (or service) is not necessarily a brand. Contrary to the legal definition of the word "brand," putting a label on a product does not make it a brand in the marketing sense. Creating a website or running an ad doesn’t do it either. A product only becomes a "brand" when it has a set of values associated with it by consumers. That set of associated values represents a considerable investment made by the owner of the brand to consistently deliver a promised group of benefits. The process of branding takes a lot of thoughtful work by communications professionals, a lengthy period of time and barrels of money to create and deliver a true "brand."

In the brand-building process, product benefits are communicated by an array of marketing initiatives including but not limited to: packaging, collateral, advertising, promotion, public relations and events. In the process known as the "Hierarchy of Effects" theory, consumers pass through several cognitive steps beginning with awareness and ending with action, usually sales and use. If the product delivers on the promised benefits, the consumer may become a regular user and may even recommend the product to others—the ultimate recognition of a product becoming a brand—known as word-of-mouth or brand "buzz."

In the process, consumers store away observations and impressions of products in the recesses of the brain for future reference. When stimulated by a name or a label or an ad or a press release, they recall their positive experiences and recognize the benefits. Then—and only then—does a product (or service) become a "brand."

The brand is then worth more than the generic product and may even be worth more than competitive brands. Experience has shown that consumers will pay a premium for a branded product. That premium represents the accumulated investment the brand owner has made in delivering on the brand promise and communicating with the consumer. This is brand equity.

The point of this diatribe is that branding is not separate and apart from marketing and advertising. Branding is the end result of a careful, well-executed marketing process. It starts with a good product and elevates that product to the status of "brand" by making the consumer aware of product benefits, forming positive predisposition, and stimulating trial, repurchase and regular use. The process must deliver true value to the user. The best marketing program cannot establish brand equity for a flawed concept!

We in the agency business are the keepers of the flame. We are the professional brand builders. We cannot let the amateurs steal and corrupt this vital little word. It is important that we carefully differentiate between what is a brand and what is simply a product or service. Our industry depends on it.

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Wendell Pope is a partner at Richartz Fliss Clark & Pope in New York City, where he manages brands including Redco Foods and Belize Tourism Board. Prior to founding the agency in 1982, he spent 13 years with JWT. With 40+ years in the agency business, he describes himself a dinosaur: "I’ve spent my life in the ad business and loved most of it. An old boss once told me there is no other business in which you can have more fun with your clothes on. I agree."

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