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Brand vs. product: what really drives reputation?

Marian Salzman
Brand vs. product: what really drives reputation? Marian Salzman

Most consumers aren't persuaded any more by fancy words and images. After all, they see thousands of them every day and have learned to tune most of them out -- quite rightly because most of them are just "noise." With a little patience, a dash of daring and a website, any business can look and talk like a brand; it just takes a smart name, some cut-and-paste text, good graphics and a few stock photos.

What makes the difference now is delivery, not promises -- it's not what a brand says, but what it does. A brand's products earn a brand permission to ask for a slice of consumers' time, attention or money.

Of course, a brand and its products sometimes dance hand in hand, as the Apple suite of products does. But don't forget that from the late '80s to the late '90s, Apple was a formerly great brand sinking under the weight of mediocre products. It took a return to great products -- iMac, iTunes, iPod, iPhone -- to make the brand powerful again.

The point is not that brands are dead or dying, it's that the relationship between products and brands is changing, with product becoming a more crucial part of the equation.

This doesn't sound earth-shattering at first. It's just counterintuitive to anyone who has based his or her career on the idea that it's brands that connect consumers to corporations. It may even be offensive to those of us who have spent years of our lives, and billions of clients' dollars, yakking, "Brand, brand and more brand." But it's revolutionary when you consider the vast amounts of money, time and energy spent on creating, sustaining and updating brand halos, to say nothing of what's spent in the never-ending quest for big brand ideas. And it means that it will no longer be business as usual for marketing professionals and communications agencies.

On both the PR and the marketing sides, we have to rethink the way we operate. The pace of change today requires constant product news. Brand news is no longer interesting -- it's just wallpaper unless it has some real substance to justify it. Product news is what drives trial and interest, buzz and sales.

With the rise of hyperconnectivity and interactivity, standout product performance creates more buzz, which, in turn, creates more sales. Ultimately, product functionality is a bigger sales driver than any abstract, feel-good brand halo; at best, a solid brand halo makes consumers more likely to trust a company's claims and try its products.

Consumers want compelling demonstrations and credible recommendations -- and with today's rapidly proliferating social networks and specialist blogs, they have no trouble finding them. To get onto consumers' radars, a brand needs striking products that get people talking. This means enormous opportunity for the smartest marketing and public relations agencies -- agencies that recognize that the savviest consumers pay more attention to the tangibles (products) than to the intangibles (brands).

It's no wonder that we in the business have it confused -- we've been immersed in brand-speak for so long. For more than a century, advertising has been increasingly about the brand. Marketers have focused on the production and consumption of "intangibles" -- concepts that could be distributed and consumed via the mass media. And now many of the smartest people we know still argue that the brand is the product -- which is why building brands is still such a big business. The thinking is that building a powerful brand pays off with the loyalty of brand fans. But while brands still rule, the landscape is changing.

Thank "brand sluts."

For several years now, marketers have tracked a growing subset of consumers who see right through branding strategies and are intent on getting maximum value for their money. These are "brand sluts" -- savvy consumers who flit from brand to brand, choosing whichever product is offering the best proposition at the moment, then moving on. Brand sluts play a constantly expanding field of brands that compete ruthlessly yet rarely offer truly differentiating benefits.

Some consumers believe that few, if any, brands are loyal to their workforce or to their suppliers; they downsize and outsource whenever possible. Those consumers have adopted a similar approach -- as their needs change and the terms of the deal change, they readily switch allegiances. Brand sluts (and an increasing number of everyday consumers) have become adept at seeing through the spin of branding; they evaluate tangible performance, along with price and reputation, and then choose products accordingly.

Brand sluts are seduced by the newness of the new. No matter how good a product proposition is, that's not enough to make consumers loyal to the brand, because there's always something new coming down the pike. At best, they're serial monogamists, like the lover grazers on Match.com. If there's nothing novel and exciting from their current partner, they'll find a new partner to spice things up. Even brands that have ardent devotees -- take Apple again, for instance -- have that loyalty because they constantly reinvent themselves and hence retain their desirability.

The entire notion of brand loyalty is starting to look very 20th century. Or maybe we're just realizing that a lot of what seemed like brand loyalty was simply habitual repeat purchasing or lack of choice. And as it turns out, even consumers who consider themselves loyal are proving to be more fickle than they think. According to a study by the retail industry monitor NPD Group, almost half of consumers who claimed they were highly loyal to a brand were no longer loyal a year later.

Now that consumers have more choice -- and now that the pace of technological innovation means that one company rarely has the newest, best, cheapest product for long -- there's less reason for them to keep their purchasing habits. Even more importantly, consumers have more choice not just among products, but among the channels for information and dialogue about those products, opinion forming and, ultimately, feedback.

"Maybe the most powerful of all is the feedback mechanism," my colleague, a partner at Porter Novelli, Michael Ramah says. "Lifecycles of products can go from launch to crash in a matter of days now, whereas before, the trial, report and opinion-forming stages took time and offered the traditional 'brand' marketers time to counter any potential negatives you might feel by convincing you (via mass media), that you must be wrong, because everybody loves this product.

"What does this mean? PR is a blessing and a curse -- and harnessing the message can either be a day at Belmont or a roller coaster through hell."

It also means that it is past time to re-evaluate the longstanding brand-centric thinking.

Brand-centric thinking has kept marketers' focus on the "soft" aspects of marketing -- brand awareness, identity, perception -- as an end in itself, and often at the expense of a focus on product performance.

(It's not unlike today's celebrity culture, in which simply being famous -- having high brand awareness -- can become the all-consuming objective; real achievement is beside the point.) Consumers now have all too many ways of seeing beyond the brand in a matter of minutes.

Another effect of brand-mindedness is that it has inevitably led to the branded space becoming crowded with companies pulling all the same moves: catchy names, cute graphics, dedicated websites. And so consumers have grown all too familiar with the process of branding -- and thus more likely to filter it out. The physical and virtual worlds are just too crowded with brands demanding, "Pay attention to me!"

The whole notion of branding has become overstretched and devalued. This means would-be brand builders need to look carefully at what they're building their brand on if they want to achieve their goal: increasing the amount of attention, time and cash that people are willing to spend on their brand.

Are we looking at a future that's all product, and product news? Certainly there will be more of it -- released more frequently, and more creatively, via even more functional messaging, whether unpaid or paid.

As my colleague David Zucker, a partner at Porter Novelli, points out, a strong enough product can now create a halo that casts the whole brand in a positive light -- a reversal of traditional thinking. "I think the product makes the brand," he says. "And then branding helps to borrow equity from the hot product and extend it to other products from the same brand. Toyota is hot because of Prius; other Toyota lines are now imbued with greater 'green' brand equity because of the success of the Prius product driving perception of Toyota as a green brand."

Even so, in today's challenging environment, product isn't a cure-all, and we shouldn't lose sight of the bigger picture. For starters, reconsider brand loyalty, William Charnock, co-head of strategic planning at JWT Worldwide suggests. "Big brands are being built not on a hard core of loyal customers but, rather, a large group of people who consider your brand in the top tier of their repertoire. In such an environment, it's all about size and penetration."

And look beyond the product/brand dichotomy and bear in mind that it's increasingly difficult to reach consumers with any kind of message. "The challenge in successful marketing to this kind of indifference is ascribing unique and appropriate roles to every element of the marketing mix," Ira Matathia, director of consulting at Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve, says. "For example, conventional ads are still good at creating awareness, but are not a panacea for effectiveness. Most important and most ignored is the idea that for all the discussion about 'new media,' it is culture that is, in fact, the new media. So weaving the DNA of the brand/product into the DNA of the culture is a very powerful weapon -- we call it InCulture marketing."

InCulture marketing takes into account four components:

  • People: Who are the influencers?

  • Press: Where do they get their information -- not the thousands of messages that create noise but the stuff that actually sticks?

  • Places: Where are the physical and virtual spaces where they spend their time, and how can you create a presence there, one that is complementary and useful, rather than intrusive?

  • Products: What are the tweaks and variants that can create the sense of "just for me"?

How does this apply to brand sluts?

These consumers are sophisticated shoppers who aren't impressed by spin and evaluate tangible performance when making buying decisions. It logically follows that the same goes for their media consumption: They aren't going to buy into messages sent through the traditional channels, and the question "What's in this for me?" will inform their decisions of which outlets to trust and which to ignore. Smart marketers will recognize that and craft their messages -- product-centric or not -- accordingly.

Marian Salzman is partner and CMO, Porter Novelli Worldwide.


to leave comments.

Commenter: Mike Taberner

2008, September 04

Only found time to get to reading this article now, really well constructed and really good insight. I suppose the debate will always rage among the the people about what really drives a business in terms of Brand or offering, but at the end of the day, consumers have and continue to be more empowered than ever.Any product failure has the potential now to complete ruin a campanies brand

Commenter: Aki Kuwabara

2008, September 02

An intriguing article - I agree that brands cannot thrive if they do not walk the talk. In this day and age, when dialogue among consumers about brands take place on multiple media channels, it is easy to conduct research on the quality, price, and other attributes of products before making purchasing decisions.

That said, consumers are not 100% objective and rational in their purchasing decisions; brand encompasses the overall experience and emotional connections consumers develop with it. Unless products offered by other brands are far superior to the brand of ones choice, the brand loyalty will sway ones purchasing decision. For example, while Apple products are great and innovative, they are not the greatest if you scrutinize every one of their features and compare them with other products in the same category. However, you will not see Apple enthusiasts jump ship to other brands that offer MP3 players with more memories or laptops with better screens.

As a side note, your article applies mainly to brands in the consumer electronics and technology categories in which innovations tend to take place fairly quickly. In categories where there is much less product differentiation, the soft art of branding speaks volumes. For example, I doubt that anyone can taste the difference between Miller Lite and Bud Light. These brands advertise heavily in hope of establishing images that differentiate them from their competitors. Also, Pabst Blue Ribbon did not enjoy sudden popularity because it tastes great or is an innovator in the beer market. Hipsters have attached the anti-mainstream, working-class appeal to the brand; thus, it is the symbolic values that the brand exudes that has triggered its resurgence.

Commenter: Mark Shipley

2008, July 09

Very interesting article with some good points, but unfortunately built on shakey premise:

"What makes the difference now is delivery, not promises -- it's not what a brand says, but what it does."

A brand has never been what a marketer says it is. A brand has always been what the consumer thinks it is.

There is nothing new here. It's always been what the brand does. It's always been about what the brand promises. And its always been about living up to the promises a brand makes.

A consumer's perception of a brand is created by every single interaction he or she has ever had with the brand — it's advertising, it's products, word of mouth, reviews, the experience of using it, its price, I could go on and on.



Commenter: Barrett Rossie

2008, June 28

Marian, you're either confusing branding with traditional advertising, or you're just seeing things through PR-tinted glasses.

This is from your employer's own website:

"At Porter Novelli, we combine the best talent, expertise and resources in the business to produce an inspiring alchemy of minds and perspectives that deliver the exceptional results your business requires and your success demands.”

If that isn't a bunch of fancy words and noise (framed by a some really trite stock photos) then nothing is.

Commenter: Trevor Campbell

2008, June 27

I'd certainly agree that effective product PR reinforces the brand. We've been doing that for years in Canada at Porter Novelli: get influencers to use the product or service; they like it; success. This positive, hands-on experience reinforces, and is reinforced by, all the lifestyle imagery delivered via ads.

However I doubt that there's any client/agency/industry consensus as to how brands were and are impacted by PR campaigns. I'd argue that many think that product PR is isolated from the brand. Perhaps due to a limited understanding about what essentially drives a brand or lack of knowledge about what PR does.

Whatever the reason, I'm glad we're talking about it.

Commenter: Trevor Campbell

2008, June 27

I'd certainly agree that effective product PR reinforces the brand. We've been doing that for years in Canada at Porter Novelli: get influencers to use the product or service; they like it; success. This positive, hands-on experience reinforces, and is reinforced by, all the lifestyle imagery delivered via ads.

However I doubt that there's any client/agency/industry consensus as to how brands were and are impacted by PR campaigns. I'd argue that many think that product PR is isolated from the brand. Perhaps due to a limited understanding about what essentially drives a brand or lack of knowledge about what PR does.

Whatever the reason, I'm glad we're talking about it.

Commenter: Angela Hill

2008, June 26

Marian, I respectfully disagree with the premise of your article that people are brand sluts and that brands are built on catchy names and cute graphics.

Brand alignment is the secret sauce that you are missing in your article. When you own who you are then you build brand loyalty. When your brand is not authentic and honest, that is when you lose customers...not because customers get bored with your brand.

For example: "Avis, We're #2 but we try harder." That is a great example of a brand truly owning their positioning in the market and not trying to deceive their customer base. They don't try to be number one or say they're number one when they're not. And, they emphasize the superior customer service you will receive when you visit their rental locations.

Another example: "Disneyland, The happiest place on earth." This is a great example of internal and external brand alignment. Disney's goal is to make their clients happy, but they don't do this by just telling their employees that is their main focus. They live their brand by focusing their internal processes, corporate culture and training around Safety. Why? Because when everyone has a safe and clean experience at the park combined with superior customer service, then happiness is a very real and attainable goal.

Commenter: Peter Hirsch

2008, June 26

Hmmm. The corollary of this thinking is that, as marketers, our main role is to help clients find/invent new uses and applications for their products and services, rather than enhancing the brand messaging. This requires an intense personal involvement with these products and services that is several orders of magnitude greater than we've needed before. New title: "Chief Applications Evangelist."

Commenter: Vicki Zerbee

2008, June 25

Great article.. let the real truth be told! Delivering results should be primary and what is promoted by the brand. I believe that in all areas of life and it is exactly why I became associated with my brand. I first used the products, developed belief when such great benefits were provided, and then elected to represent the company.

Brands + Performance = Win-Win


Commenter: Gordon Phillips

2008, June 25

If only we had time to research and define every single thing we purchased. Nice fantasy. I would contend that brand is a way to simplify and sway our decision making process more strongly than any other element. I have more than one Kitchen Aid appliance. I have more than one Cuisinart. I've bought more than one Sony. Although individual product and the experience with that product may have started the affair, it became a brand affair. I wouldn't buy another GM even though it was only one Oldsmobile that blew the engine. Yes it goes both ways.
Thanks for trying to simplify the marketing premise, but I would hedge your bet with a little honest brand support.

Commenter: Mark Scott

2008, June 25

It is unfortunate that people don't study the past. They continue to make the same mistakes about what is important. Marketing has always been a combination of communicating about benefits, features and brand. It is not one versus the other as this author frames her article. Product innovation plays a key role when it is truly a significant chance versus competitive alternatives. In most cases, however, the specific innovation becomes the norm. It may be a series of innovations can exist, but ultimately, the changes become less significant. The difference in preference at that point becomes one of confidence, emotion and trust or in other words...Brand. Most modern studies on by clinical psychology has indicated that decision making has been shown to be driven largely by emotion. I agree that at this time innovation is very important to focus on. Over the long term I'd still put marketing effort on building the brand at the same time.

Commenter: Ed Dixon

2008, June 25

Very interesting and relevant insights -- especially in Asia, where media isn't king either due to multiple other means of communication (e.g. Internet) or -- perhaps more interesting -- where there is less access to media due to technological limitations. More and more, looking at how to engage with the customer requires non-traditional PR thinking -- influencers, online communities, etc. The challenge is that many practitioners and brands are averse to non-traditional communication approaches. Brands that are willing to experiment and adapt their strategies based on local insights are likely to overtake more traditional, cautious brands.

One of the most interesting approaches I've heard recently is of a company in the Philippines using key influencers at the village level to to promote their products - where Facebook can't reach, the wife of the village leader becomes the community influencer for women. These tactics are working across Asia -- similar programs have been executed in India -- showing that you can be technologically agnostic and still leverage influencers in promoting a product or brand.

Commenter: Georgina Taylor

2008, June 25

Extremely interesting article, you bring up some great points. One of the best things about savvier consumers is that they really force companies to improve their offering, as every blunder and success is magnified by the forces of online communication. I think brands come in with the need to sustainably differentiate one company's offering from the next. Differentiation based on features alone introduces the possibility of being replicated or one-uped by your competitors, having a brand to your name lends a type of security in the face of commoditization.