Brand Meaning: Manufactured or Discovered?

Rob Walker recently wrote about brands in the NY Times:

[A brand is] a process of attaching an idea to a product… Even companies like Apple and Nike, while celebrated for the tangible attributes of their products, work hard to associate themselves with abstract notions of nonconformity or achievement. A potent brand becomes a form of identity in shorthand.

Commenting on this on his blog, Grant McCracken wrote this provocative definition of branding:

If brands are ideas, then branding is a process of meaning manufacture and management.

Businessweek recently published their list of the world’s top 100 brands. Thinking about some of them in the light of Mr. McCracken’s definition, this is what I came up with:

1. Coca Cola: As a product, Coke is hardly different from any other cola brand. The appeal of the brand idea (Classic, American) is probably the single biggest reason for consumers to buy it. A ‘manufactured’ brand? Yes.

2. Microsoft: Brand? Idea? Consumer? Meaning? Clearly there’s little to talk about there. However, one could argue that there is the potential to develop the brand – to attach emotion and true meaning to its products. But this can’t be a superficial task and certainly can’t be achieved by mere advertising. In fact, unless the products themselves reflect the brand, everything else is pure faff.

3. IBM: I think this is a case where the brand has been ‘manufactured’ in the recent past. It used to stand for cutting-edge, reliable computers, lost that meaning when its products couldn’t keep up and now wraps its new IT services offering inside the hugely appealing brand idea of a helpful, almost god-like person from the ‘helpdesk’.

4. Disney: Sure, this brand has a lot of wonderful emotion and meaning attached to it. But Disney was a real person who built an entertainment and media empire. In a sense, he was the brand. That it has endured beyond his lifetime is due to good management of the characters and storytelling franchises which he created. One wonders if the Virgin brand will endure as long. Is Disney a ‘manufactured’ brand? No.

5. Toyota: This is a brand built upon the quality of its products. Has it been ‘manufactured’? No. However, this is a product category which has plenty of meaning to its consumers and Toyota has recognized and utilized that meaning in its communication activities.

(Note that the above are all ranked in Businessweek’s top ten brands for 2006. I chose them based solely on whether I knew enough about them to think about how they have developed as brands over time.)
Therefore, one can conclude that:
a. Brand meaning CAN be manufactured; products CAN be imbued with meaning. However, many existing brands already have meaning in consumers’ minds and not all of it is ‘manufactured’. Such brands need to be understood and carefully managed by their stewards.

b. Some brands, especially newer ones, do not yet have strong meaning. The meaning CAN and SHOULD be ‘constructed‘. However, this can’t be a superficial process involving brand names and advertising. Unless the product or offering truly delivers what the brand promises, the effort of branding will be unsuccessful.

(Developed from a comment originally written on Grant McCracken’s blog).

1 Comment »

  1. […] and what precisely makes a meaningful brand, is popular fodder for the academic disciplines, and better business blogs.  It’s also a key component of what we do as market researchers, and we spend a lot of […]

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