Empty Words Filled with Delusion

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By Christopher Kenton

Empty Words Filled with Delusion

Defining “brand” should be job No. 1 for marketers who want to get their ideas straight. Otherwise, they’re just blowing hot air

It looks like I finally touched a nerve with marketers. The suggestion in my last column that the litmus test for judging good marketers is the clarity of their definition of “brand” sparked a flood of polarized e-mails I haven’t seen on any other marketing topic (see BW Online, 3/15/05, “What, Exactly, Is a Brand?”). It appears that not only is the concept of brand so muddied that no two randomly selected marketers will define it the same way, but many don’t agree that this is even a serious problem. Advertisement

Some marketers were merely dismissive of the notion that clarity is important, while others were mortally offended at the suggestion that their personal definition of brand may not be the right one. By far the most frequent criticism was that my separation of the concept of brand — a name, a sign, or a symbol that distinguishes your products and services from competitors — from derivative concepts like brand image and brand equity was merely semantic. “Semantic” apparently meaning “unworthy of consideration,” rather than a useful consideration of the meaning of the words with which we define what we do.

Yes, this is a semantic argument. So is the bulk of the last 2,500 years of serious Western thought! We call ourselves knowledge workers living in the Information Society. Great. Well how do you think knowledge is transferred? Through language.

CRUCIAL TOOL. If I have one definition of brand and you have another, I might as well be speaking Spanish to an Italian. Sure you’ll pick up the gist, but beyond the most basic discussions, we’ll stumble over words and ideas we can’t translate clearly. That is precisely the corrosive problem that is undermining the credibility of marketing today.

When marketers refuse to accept such a basic semantic necessity as clarifying words and definitions, we lose the power of shared language and universal meanings that allows us to communicate ideas effectively. Instead of building on a common foundation, we talk in circles about the most basic concepts of our craft. Brand is a relationship. No, it’s a bond. No, it’s an experience. No, it’s an image. No, it’s a promise. If we can’t even say what we mean, how on earth do we expect to be taken seriously by anyone else?

The distinction between the definition of a word like “brand” and the derivative terms that extend the meaning and value of brand — like brand image, brand experience, brand reputation — is not ivory-tower bombast. It is a crucial tool for resuscitating the credibility of marketing.

A brand is something you create. Brand image is something you cultivate. They are measured differently, valued differently, managed differently. When marketers insist this is a meaningless distinction, they lose the clarity to discern what is tangible and what is not, what adds value and what does not, what is within the control of the company and what is not, what can be created directly and what can only be influenced, what can be measured and what cannot.

DISPOSABLE DEFINITIONS. These distinctions are important because, as I’ve discussed in recent columns, the valuation of business has shifted dramatically from tangible to intangible assets, and a determined drive is on to quantify and qualify the sources of value. A lot of money goes into marketing, and marketers have not been adept at demonstrating return on investment. If marketers are not even able to get their stories straight about what it is they do, much the less the very meanings of the bedrock concepts of their trade, we’re doomed.

In finance, meanings are universal and incontrovertible. Net Present Value is a concept and a formula that has one meaning to everyone everywhere. There are no arguments in the trenches about what it really means — it is clear, consistent, universal. Marketers, on the other hand, can’t even agree on a definition of marketing, with the American Marketing Assn. trotting out new and revised definitions every decade or so — definitions that are D.O.A. because they’ve been designed by committee.

Does anyone else realize how pathetic this is? Let’s step back and consider the concept of brand again. What is one the most fundamental attributes of a strong brand? Consistency. A consistent presentation across time and medium. So why are we so incapable of applying the same concept to our own profession? Apparently we really have no clue about what it means to build brand equity. We can talk about it, but we can’t apply it. It’s just a bunch of hot air that makes us sound important to people who don’t understand what we’re saying.

IMAGE PROBLEM. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the impression we are carving into our gravestone. We may believe that our ideas have great import. But others look at us and see no foundation, that everything is relative, that the next New Thing always replaces the old, that there is no discernible direction where we are headed. If there is no reliable definition of something as basic as brand, it is whatever you decide to make it. It is, therefore, made up.

How can marketing be a serious profession if no one agrees on its most basic definitions, if no one can communicate ideas clearly, if customers see a different definition of what we do everywhere they look? The answer is, marketing can’t. And time is running out to improve our image, because outside experts in finance, technology, and law are stepping in every day with new ways to find clarity in areas where marketers continue to babble.

So ask yourself, and ask your colleagues: What is a brand? If clarity can become a revolution, it may be the most important question of your career.

Kenton is president of Cymbic, a marketing agency in San Rafael, Calif. Visit his blog at www.marketonomy.com

Edited by Rod Kurtz

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