Why Do Brands Exist?

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There was an excellent article in the Harvard Business Review, September 2004, titled "Customer-Centered Brand Management" by R.T. Rust, V.A. Zeithami and K.N. Lemon. It focused on a discussion of the purpose of brands.

The article posed the question, "Is the brand developed for the company or for the customer?" Their answer was that, "Brand management still trumps customer management" and they stress that this tactic is increasingly incompatible with growth.

A graphic in the article shows the brand manager can try to gain customer attention by using free samples, brand awareness, image advertising, attitude toward the brand, ethical corporate behavior and brand ethics. All of these factors become the brand equity. However, value equity (what the customer gets for the money) and relationship equity (the relationship of the company to people and the environment) will also be considered by the customer when choosing a particular brand.

Therefore, the final decision on whether to buy a particular brand is made by the sum of the value equity, the brand equity and the relationship equity. These three factors will determine the customer equity. When a company increases the value equity, the brand equity or the relationship equity, it will increase the customer equity. The higher the customer equity, the more likely the customer will purchase the brand.

Thus, brands should exist to serve the customer, not the customer exist to serve the brand.

Another article that supports this approach appeared in the August 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine. In "The Good Brand," Linda Tischler writes about trends that show brands are less about what we consume and more about who we are.

One of her trends indicates that brands must be authentic, citing the fraud committed by Enron and WorldCom. New customers are much more likely to scrutinize a brand to find the truth behind the image.

Another of Tischler’s marketing trends indicates experience will be the expression of the brand. She cites several companies that have spent little on advertising but have used word of mouth and customer satisfaction to be the communicator of their names or brands. Amazon.com is one company she cited.

My personal experience with this company proves her point. I have purchased books from Amazon.com for several of my family and friends. I was able to search by subject, review the book’s content and then purchase what I found interesting and have it sent directly to the person on my gift list. In addition, I purchased several marketing and management books for myself. Since then, I have received information on new books or other books previously published that might be of interest to me on a regular basis.

Amazon.com’s e-mail name is their brand, and I believe they have the value equity, the brand equity and the relationship equity to be my brand of choice. Therefore, my experience is the expression of this brand. 

Coke Versus Pepsi

One of the very interesting marketing trends in Tischler’s article is that brands can be hard-wired into our brains. She cites work done by Professor Montague, a neuroscientist at Baylor University College of Medicine.

During his daughter’s summer vacation, he tried to keep her occupied in his laboratory. He and his daughter lined up a group of volunteers to re-create the Pepsi Challenge. Their results were very interesting. The blind taste test showed that the subjects had a clear preference for Pepsi, but, when they were told which of the samples were which, their brains started to switch brands. For those who liked Coke before the taste test, the brain image of Coke in their nervous systems caused them to change their behavior and switch their choice back to Coke.

Thus, Montague showed that power of the Coke brand was enough to override an objection or preference. This type of test may soon be used by many companies to determine the effect of their products on our minds.

Another article in the October 2006 issue of the Harvard Business Review addressed a very interesting side of branding. In "Embrace the Dark Side," Michael Fanuele indicated that brands like Ivory soap have brought "good clean fun" to families for 125 years. Sears, Kraft and Tropicana have spent years presenting a vision of "sweetness and light."

That vision is now considered outdated and has lost its draw. These artificial images are now considered "fading stars" and customers no longer believe them. These brand messages are trying to sell a fairy tale in a reality-TV world. Fanuele indicates that "imperfection can actually be a source of great appeal."

After reading his article, I believe there is some truth to the concept. I’ll share a few examples I can think of.

When President John F. Kennedy gave his inaugural address, he may have stunned many when he said, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Many Americans answered that charge by helping others in the United States and other parts of the world. Thus, the Peace Corps was developed after his address.

My second example is the Marine Corps’ recruiting commercials. They don’t say, "Come with us and we will give you a college education" or "You will see the world." They merely say, "We need a few good men." This ad "embraces the dark side."

Fanuele cited an example with a product. It was a battle between Prego and Ragu spaghetti sauces. Prego was winning by advertising that it had "chunkier and meatier" sauce. Ragu had a thinner sauce and tried to compete head-on. Sales slid for over 10 years with this approach. Ragu studied their customers and found that, while grown-ups liked Prego’s chunkier sauce, young teens and children preferred Ragu. So Ragu became the kids’ delight. This ad campaign turned a decade of decline in sales into a growth market.

After pondering all this branding information, I’ll share a few ideas that might be used in our horticultural businesses.

• We need to get off the green thumb concept and exploit the dirty hands reality. Gardening is work if you do it yourself. However, that work provides you with exercise and also peace of mind. It gives you a quiet time to do, think and reflect, time to create something of beauty and peace. Gardening is like painting a picture. If you have the knowledge and practice, you can produce a work of art.

• Create a company that says, "Yes, gardening is work, but we have everything you need, the information, the plants, fertilizer, pest control, containers, tools and accessories to make it easier. We are the ‘How To Do It’ Center for gardening."

• If you don’t want to work, we have the people who can do it for you. We can provide professional landscapers and gardeners to install and maintain what you want. The Big Box stores offer these services on many items. They contract with professionals to do the jobs.

• To address "I don’t have enough time to do gardening," why not create more time for the customer? Why not a garden center that is open 24 hours a day in the spring and early summer?

I’m sure you can think of many more ideas. You may carry national brands, you may use your company as a brand, or you may be a brand yourself. If you have a great grower, you might brand them, i.e. instead of "Paintings by Picasso," "Plants by John Jones." Whatever the brand, it must have value equity, brand equity and relationship equity that result in customer equity. Also, think about the dark side of branding – you might be able to use this as your niche.

A great spring starts now! Happy branding!

Will Carlson is a Michigan State University emeritus professor who has devoted his career to educating growers. He also had the vision to launch Greenhouse Grower magazine with Dick Meister more than 25 years ago.

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