Conceptualizing brands: Metaphors of Brand Management

The management of brands is often biased by the way managers conceptualize and understand brands. We have identified four commonly employed metaphors of brands which, all in their own way, produce unwanted effects on the management and utilization of brands.

People conceptualize through metaphors all the time. „Success“, for instance, is always conceptualized as a dimension in space: „up“. Failure is the opposite, conceptualized as „down“. You might go „up the career ladder“ or „down the drain“, but you don´t escape the metaphoric conceptualization that the ups and downs of life are directions in space. Metaphors are, in fact, so pervasive in our daily lives that we do not realize how much they frame our thinking. Metaphors are deeply embedded, cultural concepts with a characteristic trait: They point out certain contexts just in order to obstruct others.

In an economic environment where the access to the means of production is open to everyone, one of the few remaining qualifiers for business is the value proposition for the customer, embodied in its brand. Building, successfully managing and sustaining brands are consequently of prime importance for management.

In the metaphor „The brand is a property“, the brand is understood as a logo, mark and name. Here the brand is a prescribed space which is owned similar to land. With this view, companies often legally defend their mark, name and logo, also when the context in which the brand is defended has little to do with the consumer´s view of the brand. An example would be the affair of A French tailoress named Milka who ran a simple website promoting her service was sued by the chocolate brand Milka and finally had to hand over her web address by French court order. (In a similar court ruling in the US, a Mr. Gopi Mattel, although he had changed his previous name to Mattle a few years ago, could keep his web address against Mattel, Inc.).

In the „The brand is a property“ metaphor, brand value is understood as the accrued value of the brand property. Much attention is given to tangible representations of the brand in heavy corporate identity manuals. Meticulous compliance with prescription-based brand manuals is seen as paramount, often to the detriment of the core brand idea.

In the metaphor „The brand is a projector“, the brand is conceptualized as a device projecting an image on a blank screen. This concept makes the brand appear as though it is able to project any image seen as appropriate by the brand owner. Managers employing this metaphor usually spend most of their brand budget on advertising and communication, reckoning if they just project long enough, then the brand image will over time become burnt in. The brand is essentially understood as being referred to by the image it represents. It is assumed, for instance, that a name and advertisement campaign with certain attributes will make people think that the company behind it also has these attributes. That is, however, not true in our everyday personal experience. People are apt in distinguishing between signifier and signified, discerning between name and perceived character trait. Just because, let´s say, Julia has a nice name and a pretty dress, does not necessarily mean that she is a nice person.

Brand changes often fail when they are built on the projector metaphor. The “blank screen” concept contained in the projector metaphor tends to make brand managers ignore existing, established values, and the “one-way” idea contained in the metaphor makes them underestimate public reactions – after all, screens usually don´t object. For instance, British Royal Mail´s brand change to „Consignia“ was met with wide public disapproval as it ignored the strong existing core values associated with Royal Mail, and consequently it had to be reversed. Where a blank screen was assumed, there was, in fact, a big picture with a long history. Similarly reversed was the brand projection of the famed consulting business of PriceWaterhouseCoopers as „Monday“.

A related common metaphorical conception of brands is „The brand is a wrap“. Here the brand is conceived as a mask, a device for appearing in a different way. This thinking is at work, for instance, whenever corporations change their brand name once the company runs into a public relations trouble. Examples are Philip Morris, the cigarette and food producer, who changed its name into Altria, or Jarvis, the contractor at the focus of the enquiry of the Potters bar rail accident, who changed its name to Engenda. Here the brand is built to hide the value problems of the previous brand and the company behind it. This tactics is often uncovered by critical consumer groups, which also quickly manage to bring the new brand in disrepute.

With the property, projector, and wrap metaphor, the brand is in different ways detached from the reality of the company, product, or customer, attached instead to a logo, an image, or the illusion of the company. Resulting are situations in which, for instance, the logo and advertisements communicate a dynamic and optimistic outlook, but the actual customer experience of the company is one of bureaucratic tediousness.

While in the above metaphors the brand is always detached from the actual behaviour of the company, in a fourth common metaphor the brand is seen as embedded, but the type of embeddedness is misunderstood. It is assumed that the brand essence is embedded in a specific type of product, in a particular way of looking at the market, or in a specific way of dealing with the competition.

In the metaphor „The brand is a specific“, the brand is understood as being embedded in particulars, as an indivisible part of laws guiding the cogs and wheels of the organisation and its products. This concept– the brand is in „what and how things are made around here“ – is inevitably unfavorable for innovation, making it difficult to rethink, restructure or redesign offerings to tap into new markets.

Pegging the brand at the wrong spots can severly impede the development of the organisation, essentialy depriving it of development. The example of Nokia in 2003 shows that this can be a costly misconception: After Samsung had introduced the exceedingly successful clam-shell mobile phone, the clam-shell design became a major trend for consumers. Yet Nokia refused to produce a clam-shell phone, with the result that customers switched to the competition and Nokia lost 6 billion dollars in equity.

What happend? I conclude that Nokia was seeing its brand embedded in the block-type phone. They clinged to it because it was the type of phone which initially created their own stunning success in the market. Vested with this view, Nokia conceptualized the clam-shell product type as the brand of the competition, and consequently had to see it as disadvantageous to produce the competitor´s brand with its own name on it.

A brand, despite being mostly taken as such, is not a property, a projector, not a wrap, and not a specific. Brands cannot obtain or project their value by themselves; they are always existing in a context, obtaining value by the correlation they have with what they stand for. The brand is thus a learned association signified by a sign. The content of this sign consists of the meaning which is appropriated by consumers about a company and its products. The brand is a relationship formed by accumulated knowledge, where mouth-to-mouth promotion, rumours and myths are having at least as much impact as advertisements and targeted press releases.

The most influential source of brand knowledge for customers is the personal experience with the product itself, with the customer service, or the attitude of the salesperson in the shop. Large organizations have more stamina to launch and advertise brands. But once an organization grows beyond a certain size, a premier contact point enabler – the personal touch – is often lost in hierarchies. You might have a nice loyalty card, but when calling customer service, you mostly hear „hold the line“.

A brand is what economists call an externality, a common corporate asset available to all. As the possible benefits of the brand are available to everyone who uses it while the costs of building and developing it are only assigned to particular departments, the common incentives to invest in brand development in a large organization are, if not supported by special policies, innately insufficient.

Smaller companies, where people can afford lasting relationships to their customers, often deliver a better brand experience then large organisations simply by way of interacting in a genuine way. There the brand is a set of information which natually holds the whole organization together, a vision driven by action: An idea every employee can accept, ideally identify with, and communicate to customers. Douglas Nelson from the University of South Florida, researching on associative memory and adaptive network models, found that the strength of the association between a brand name and a benefit is constantly updated as knowledge of the brand is accrued, cues compete and interact. The more a brand name co-occurs with a benefit, the stronger the mental link between the brand and the benefit becomes in the mind of the consumer. Thus the brand is ultimately tested every time the consumer interacts with the product or service the brand refers to.

Yet often brands fail right there to establish a sustainable link to their consumers. Marketing departments often point to their CRM and loyalty programs. But it does not help to offer a loyalty program when the product experience was not satisfactory – after all, when something is disappointing, you don´t want to do it again, also when you get a discount for it. Therefore also even the strongest brands – Nokia was ranked worldwide number 6 in terms of brand value – cannot ignore it when customers want product types they find more satisfactory. The smaller, foldable clam-shell type obviously delivered better storage and an improved handling experience. Therefore, actual contact points between product and customer are of paramount importance.

Contact points do vary substantially between products – a mobile phone will be in contact with the customer several times a day, while that glass of Moet & Chandon will be in contact with the same customer only once in a while for a special event. The crucial elements of the brand, the time when the product or service is actually experienced, is often overlooked, although it should be the subject of great attention for brand value. The contact point perspective enables companies to focus on the occurrence and quality of interaction between customer and product.

The exploration of contact points can lead to insights into major strategic options for the brand: While for a mobile phone features such as ease of use, size, responsiveness and mental structure employed in the menu will be important, the contact points in the interaction between an airline and a customer are, to name just a few, the check-in process, waiting time, or seat comfort, all of which will be offset against product factors such as price or prestige.

Contact points are defined by type and degree of interaction between the embodiments of a brand (goods and services), and customers. They are intimately connected with product factors, either as an offset or as added value. By strategically altering product factors, new strategic contact points to initiate customer interaction can be established. For instance, customer esteem of a brand might be high, yet its products are not purchased, until a factor in the offering changes and customers do find the offer acceptable.

Designer outlets tap into the large market of customers who value designer fashion, yet only will or can buy when the price factor is lower. Or producers find that to attract a new pool of customers they have to change other product factors: Perhaps the volume of an offering, as it was done for convenience food in smaller packaging quantities for singles, or the packaging design to attract a different target group.

The brand, like a mental image or photograph freezing an image in memory, is not able to hide, or beautify, its subject, the company behind it, once the company itself is experienced. The brand, when well executed, is an image of concentrated values, a sign which refers to the essential values of a company. This mental image is a snaphot in time, which, as time passes, becomes less and less attached to its subject: It becomes memory. This leads me to offer another metaphor: „The brand is a memory device“.

This is to be understood as a mental image of an impression and an experience, always latently waiting to be updated. Advertisement can make a brand known and introduce new products, it also can give a primer for the brand experience, but the brand experience itself is ultimately formed by the interaction of product/service and consumer. A logo can only express only that much, the rest has to be accomplished in the interaction with the customer and verified each and every time a product is experienced.

The metaphor “The brand it is a memory device” contains that the brand is made of associations and knowledge shortcuts, encoded in signs and names, and embodied in products. It should also be, through shared understandings, encultured in the organization, embedded in its routines, and become embrained in the mind of the consumer. For the consumer, the brand, as a memory device, is a mind marker which is primed by advertisements, but experienced only through contact with the actual product or service. It is a signifier which only in the mind of the consumer becomes attached and contextualized in the conflicting fields of expectations and actual experiences.

The brand is a constant, while a company evolves, if it’s for the better or worse. It must be regularly updated to reflect its signified, not as an accurate picture, but as an impression which at least does not contradict its own subject. In order to update this picture, brand associations have to be evaluated, contact points and product factors of the offering have to be explored, and the way the brand connects to the company, the product, or the service has to be managed to build and maintain meaning.

As a mental image of an interconnection, it can assume a name which stands for that connection: Starbucks, for instance, is synonymous for „coffeshop“ in the US. In evoking the picture of a place for coffee, the brand is able to occupy a spot in consumers mind. Some brands even replace spoken language: Duct tape, for instance, is commonly referred to as „Scotch tape“ in the US, „Tesafilm“ in Germany, and „Tixoband“ in Austria. This mental picture is the brand essence, the gist of a brand, not to be confused with its attributes.

A Porsche does not have to be a sleek sports car, it can also be an SUV. The brand essence is a unique, entirely mental composition of promise and experience which managed to stick in the brain of consumers. The best brands appear as a natural consequence of the essence of the whole corporation, its strategic direction, its ways of managerial execution. A well-working brand is the result of a well-working company and excellent products. Lots of badly designed and executed brands every day do ill to actually good products. But the best brand cannot cover up a messed-up company, and the brand also won´t help when the company fails to deliver on its promise.