Friday, December 12, 2008

Is a brand a cause or an effect?

It would seem they are both.

Brands are sets of associations and impressions in the minds of consumers. Brands are the cumulative effect of the actions that marketers engage in with respect to their products and the experiences that consumers have as a consequence (direct or indirect) of those actions. Brands are, in a sense, epiphenomenal.

Brands are also causes. The associations and impressions that people have, cause them to behave in various ways towards branded products that they would not towards equivalent unbranded products. The brand acts as a heuristic and the value of that heuristic in effecting sound judgment is a function of the accuracy of the associations that consumers have with respect to the branded product(s).

So brands are both cause and effect right?

Well not so fast.

Perhaps they were in the past. In years past, a big company could launch a product, advertise it on TV, promote it at retail and stand to benefit for years to come from the associations that were created by the quality of the product and the message communicated through the advertising. Consumers would simply assume that if Brand X launched another product, it would be as trusted, as fun, as innovative as their mental representation of that brand. They relied on the heuristic because starting every decision process from scratch is time consuming.

I'm not so sure it works that way anymore. Consumers are savvier, likely because finding information is much much easier. It's all on Google for free. And, of course, there is a general societal trend towards mistrust of social institutions.

It seems to me that brands are no longer causes. They no longer cause people to behave in ways that they do not behave towards equivalent unbranded products. I think that in a world of instant free information, brands can never rest on their laurels. They must constantly keep doing whatever earned them those associations and impressions in the first place. A brand that is known for quality cannot take a vacation from quality and still expect to maintain the same associations and impressions in the minds of its consumers.

So if brands must continuously earn their associations, then it seems reasonable to argue that it is not the brand (i.e, the associations) that causes people to act but, rather, the actions of the marketer with respect to its products that causes people to act.

I know that I'm oversimplifying. And I know that I have overstated the case. Still, I think brand loyalty is declining and cycle times have shrunk. "What have you done for me lately" is the new mantra.

So I think marketers must think of their brands as effects. Effects of the actions they take. Once they have a brand that stands for something positive, they should vigorously and unflaggingly pursue actions that reinforce those associations in the minds of their consumers.

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