What You Need to Know About Marketing: Brand Evolution

20 June 2011 Simon Middleton

Simon Middleton examines the status and influence of branding in recent years and asks: what is a 'brand' today? And how can companies create one that is strong and, most importantly, positive?

In the early literature on marketing, including the first edition of Kotler's Marketing Management in 1967, there is barely any mention of the word 'brand', and where it is mentioned it is described in somewhat mechanistic or static terms.

40 years ago, even at the height of mass-market advertising, brand was just a descriptor for the 'properties' owned by a company made up of their recognisable goods and services and the names and trademarks that went with them. Brand, in a sense, was just a system of placing a badge on a product: the value still lay in the product itself and the company's ability to sell it. Things are different now.

Brand in the boardroom

Brand's status and influence in the boardroom has risen. Not many years ago (up until the late 1990s and even beyond) the person in the company with the lead responsibility for generating profit by getting customers to part with money in exchange for goods was most likely to be called the sales director. Gradually, many of those directors were given an extra element to their role and became sales and marketing director. As time moved on the marketing director became the lead, often with the sales director reporting to them. Somewhere in the management tier there were frequently brand managers, whose jobs were less concerned with the topic of brand as we are about to explore it, but more with the day-to-day management of the marketing and sales effort relating to discrete collections of products.

"40 years ago 'brand' was just a system of placing a badge on a product."

The great branding shift

But in recent years, since roughly the turn of the century, there has been a marked shift. In many companies the marketing director has been joined on the board, or even replaced, by the brand director. In other slightly more cautious companies the marketing director is closely supported by a head of brand or similar.

But what is brand and why has its star risen so high? Brand is not (and this is where confusion often creeps in) fundamentally about logos, brand names or brand–advertising campaigns. Those things play a part, but they are not the brand in themselves.

Brand as a set of meanings

Brand is defined most simply as being a set of meanings that consumers and customers - in fact any members of all a company's audiences - carry around in their heads and hearts. To put it another way, a product's or company's or individual's brand can be said to be the sum total of all the things that people think, feel, suspect, imagine, believe, wish and say about it.

"In recent years there has been a widespread marked shift. In many companies the marketing director has been joined on the board, or even replaced, by the brand director."

The concept of 'positioning' is also concerned with meaning (or perception). But where positioning is a relative concept - in that it refers to perceptions in relation to other, competing products and services ("this thing is cheaper than that competitor, or of better quality than the other competitor") - brand might be said to be more absolute. Brand is less concerned with the shifting sands of relative positioning, and more concerned with the creation and transmitting of meanings that will draw customers to it.

It's not difficult to test the 'brand as meaning' concept. Take any well-known brand from any sector, write its name on a piece of paper and ask a number of people to tell you the words or phrases that come into their minds when they see the name. The results reveal three important truths. First, if there is general agreement on the words and phrases, or at least the meanings behind them, then you can consider your test brand to be a 'strong' one: strong in the sense that its meanings are small in number, coherent, and understood and shared by different people.

One of my favourite tricks at conferences and workshops is to do this exercise with a large audience, having them shout out the words that they associate with a couple of very famous brands. To underline my point with a flourish I take care to write down the 'meanings' of the brands on paper beforehand and to hand these in a sealed envelope to a member of the audience.

One example is the British department store John Lewis. Over and over again, with audiences across the UK, four key meanings are identified for this brand: quality, service, value and partnership (the latter referring to the company's mutual ownership structure). Those, of course, are the words that I have written and sealed in an envelope. This party piece hasn't failed yet. This not only proves the point that John Lewis has managed to get its audiences to absorb and believe a small and powerfully consistent set of meanings, but it also helps to explain why this store is so much loved by its regular customers.

"A strong brand can slip from positivity while retaining its strength, putting it in the worst position of all: infamy."

Strong doesn't necessarily mean positive

By careful design or through philosophical coincidence, but happily for John Lewis, its brand meanings are, it seems, perfectly in tune with the zeitgeist. In his 2005 book FAQs on Marketing Kotler says, "Customers are most concerned with quality, service and value." Way to go John Lewis!

Interestingly (and somewhat spoiling my conference party trick) John Lewis has recently started to be much more explicit about its set of meanings and now overtly says: 'Never knowingly undersold . . . on quality, on price and on service'.

This store's brand is therefore not only very strong but also very positive. Being a strong brand is not enough, as BP, Toyota, Tiger Woods, FIFA, Rolls Royce and others have discovered. A strong brand - BP being the most acute example here - can slip from positivity whilst retaining its strength, arguably putting it in the worst position of all: strong/negative, otherwise known as infamy.

Changing brand perception

The challenge for new brands is to build strength and positivity at the same time, rising from obscurity to positive fame. In contrast, the challenge for established and admired brands is to maintain the positive meanings through their behaviour and their relationships with customers. The immense challenge for some brands is to drag themselves somehow from the strong/negative position to something more positive.

This is perhaps most starkly seen with nations, which are becoming more and more concerned with brand because they know that their set of brand meanings has a direct effect on their prosperity and prospects. Afghanistan, tragically, is a very strong brand (famous everywhere with its name immediately evocative of strong visual images), but its set of meanings is immensely negative.

Changing the meanings of Afghanistan, or indeed any country, has more to do with policy-making than with marketing of course - but it has everything to do with the mental and emotional power of brand.

Brand is defined most simply as being a set of meanings that consumers and customers carry around in their heads and hearts
Simon Middleton is one of the UK's most well-known brand experts and has worked with several of the UK's biggest brands.