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Brand Marketers: Let’s Put an End to the Babble

Brand marketers; take out a sheet of paper!

Ready? Now write a crisp, clear definition for each of these terms:

  • brand strategy
  • brand platform
  • brand identity
  • Tips for brand Marketersbrand positioning
  • brand personality
  • brand image
  • brand vision
  • brand essence
  • brand mantra
  • brand value proposition
  • brand promise
  • Extra credit: define ‘brand.’

My point?

For an industry that relies on words, brand marketers are rather careless about defining the terms of their craft. Nearly every agency offers a unique nomenclature, in an attempt to be different. Client companies are only a little better. How can we purport to be a discipline worthy of MBA course level work and C-Suite salaries if we can’t agree on basic terms? If marketers were lawyers, the equivalent would be failure to agree on the meaning of ‘contract’ or ‘torte’.

Much ado about nit picking?

Granted, on a scale of importance, where 1 is a nuisance and 10 is a disaster, lack of a definitive, shared understanding of key terms probably lies somewhere in the 4-5 range. But why not put an end to the confusion before it undermines our claims to being a serious discipline? I, for one, could live without another heated discussion where it’s agreed that we are really discussing the same idea, we just have a different name for it. It’s embarrassing. There’s an even more important reason than communication to drive toward agreement: it will help us think better about brands. Academic scholars and researchers have a hard time classifying and studying something for which there is no common conceptual underpinning. In his new book, The Language of Branding, John Gaski, Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Notre Dame, goes to great lengths to show the depth of the problem. Gaski catalogued the multiple uses of the word ‘brand’ in academic journals from 1994-2005 and found:

“brand can refer to a name or mark (the AMA definition), a specific product unit or item, a family of products, an entire store full of products or even an abstract idea.”

After taking a hard look at usage, particularly in relation to brand architecture (co-brand, anyone?), Gaski warns that brand marketing is ‘presently behind the curve’ in defining a fundamental concept. Declaring this ‘linguistic dereliction’ is a ‘contaminant,’ he concludes:

“Our discipline’s definition of brand is incomplete to the point of confusion, and some brand-related conceptualization is weak in a way that is dysfunctional. Brand scholarship has been stultified for decades by sloppy conceptual masonry. Attempted communication within a substantial marketing/consumer domain is impeded or garbled by a linguistic fog, even rendered unintelligible at times. Worse, few seem to realize it.”

Language Matters!

It’s not clear who should take on this challenge, but as marketing educators, we cannot afford to wait. I have been teaching Brand Strategy at University of Notre Dame for nine years and my partner, Judy Hopelain, has taught a similar course at University of California, Berkeley for three. Experience has taught us that imprecision, ‘the linguistic fog’ which Gaski condemns, is problematic in the classroom. Students demand clarity, and we are obligated to provide it. In the spirit of sparking a conversation that will lead to an agreed set of concepts that brand marketers can use, we offer these definitions. They are based on careful reading of the leading academic thinkers, particularly David Aaker, Jean-Noel Kapferer, Philip Kotler, Kevin Keller and Jennifer Aaker.

Brand Strategy

“Plan for how a company will run its business”

The entire platform by which a brand is defined and decisions are made regarding how the brand will be expressed in communications, in products and through the customer experience. It is literally a plan for how a company will support its business strategy by building relationships with customers and end users.

Other names for Brand Strategy used by brand marketers: Brand Platform, Brand Blueprint

Brand Identity

“Brand Identity is visionary and motivating.”

Brand identity describes the marketer’s intended meaning for the brand. It explains what makes the brand unique and special, whatever the product, and forms the basis for creating sustainable competitive advantage. Importantly, it is visionary and motivating. The Identity is what the brand aspires to be. The Brand Identity is not a simple statement, but an elaboration of multiple facets of the brand. Our identity model is an adaptation of those of Aaker and Kapferer, and includes six facets:

  • Capabilities
  • PersonalityBrand Marketers can make their product unique
  • Shared Values & Community
  • Aspirational Self Image
  • Internal Culture & Values
  • Noble Purpose.

Differentiation can occur in any of the facets and ideally should occur in more than one. Today, differentiation is as likely to result from a deep recognition and participation in a subculture or a sense of shared purpose or community as from a product feature or functional benefit.

Other names for Brand Identity used by brand marketers: Brand Vision, Brand Pyramid, Brand Onion, etc. (Note: We personally like Brand Vision, but consensus seems to be developing for Identity. It is also less likely to be confused with corporate vision and values).

Brand Mantra

“The Brand Mantra is intended to be inspirational to employees.”

A brand mantra is a summary phrase that is intended to capture the spirit of the Brand Identity in three or four words. Keller suggests mantras include a brand function, with an emotional and descriptive modifier (e.g., “Magical Family Entertainment” for Disney). Ideally, in addition to summarizing the Brand Identity, the Brand Mantra is intended to be inspirational to employees. While it may require elaboration, it should convey a meaningful, emotional connection on its own.

Other names for Brand Mantra used by brand marketers: are Rallying Cry, Brand Essence, Strapline. (Note: A Mantra is not the same as a slogan or tagline. These are campaign-related themes intended for external audiences.)

Brand Positioning

“Brand Positioning is competitive and dynamic!”

Positioning is a tool to move the brand closer to its Identity. Brand Positioning describes what the brand will communicate to a specific target group at a point in time to achieve the Identity. While some use Positioning interchangeably with Identity, we agree with Kapferer that they are different and both are needed. Unlike Identity, Positioning is competitive; it specifies how the brand is different in relation to alternatives for a specific target group. Another difference is that Positioning is dynamic. Brand Positionings should be updated to adapt to changing market conditions, especially in fast moving or dynamic categories. Most brands will need multiple Brand Positionings over time to achieve their desired Identity. Some will even need multiple Positionings at the same time to address distinct target segments. A classic positioning has four parts: Target, Frame of Reference, Key Benefit or Point of Difference, and Supporting Reasons to Believe. Changing any one part changes the positioning.

Other names for Brand Positioning used by brand marketers: Value Proposition, Brand Strategy, Brand Idea, Brand Promise, Brand Benefit.

Brand Personality

“Personality is increasingly important as a differentiator”

Brand Personality is one facet of the Brand Identity. While capabilities describe what a brand does, Personality describes how it behaves – the way it speaks and delivers its products and services. Brand Personality is described in human terms, profiling who the brand would be if it were to come to life. Brand Marketers regard Personality to be increasingly important as a differentiator as many brands have similar capabilities and as brands interact directly with customers, at events and in social media. Jennifer Aaker provides a useful framework for classifying brand personality attributes into five categories, each with subcategories:

  • Sincerity
  • Competence
  • Excitement
  • Sophistication
  • Ruggedness.

Other names for Brand Personality used by brand marketers: Brand Persona, Brand Behaviors. Note: While the target description or user image and the Brand Personality may share some common characteristics, they are not the same thing.

Visual and Verbal Brand Identity

“A way to express your brand across cultures”

Visual and Verbal Identity represent the rules for consistently expressing the brand. These rules encompass name, logo, URL’s, symbols, jingles, spokespeople, taglines, sub-brands, sounds, colors, characters, endorsements, partners, as well as tone of voice. Today, brands are increasingly global and cannot always depend on nuances of language. As a result, non-verbal design elements are as important as voice and verbal style in

expressing the brand across cultures. Other names for Visual and Verbal Identity used by brand marketers: Brand Book, Brand Identity, Visual Brand Language, Tone and Manner

Brand Image

“Brand image helps determine your brands limits”

Brand Image is how the brand is actually perceived by customers and is what is measured by brand tracking and satisfaction research. The gap between the Brand Positioning

and the Brand Image drives product strategy, marketing strategy and tactics. Image also determines brand extension limits – how far can the brand stretch before it is no longer recognizably the same brand? Other names for Brand Image used by brand marketers: Brand Perceptions, Brand Awareness and Attitudes, Brand Associations.

“Why Does the Brand Exist?”tips for brand marketers

While each of these terms has a role in defining a brand, this is the most important question for any strategy. Or asked another way, ‘What would customers be missing if the brand didn’t exist?’

The ‘CEO Test’


Anne Bahr Thompson calls this question the ‘CEO Test’: what would the CEO say when asked:

“So what is this brand/organisation really about?”

For Kashi, the answer is Seven Whole Grains on a Mission, for Virgin it’s Consumer Champion, for Pampers, it’s Happy Baby, for Innocent it’s No Poisons. These are more than words on a page, they are compelling forces that resonate with customers and motivate internal audiences.

They are inspirational.

So, Brand Marketers!

If, at the end of the brand defining process, you can answer this key question, it doesn’t really matter what you call it.

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