The Five Biggest Ideas of the Branding Era

Be more flexible. More strategic. Let customer sweet spots–what they are thinking now–dictate your next move.

The concept of brand equity and the science and practice of building and managing brands strategically have been with us for more than a quarter-century. Taking stock, what are the most powerful and impactful ideas that have emerged during that time?

I addressed that question when writing my book, Aaker on Branding: 20 Principles That Drive Success. Drawing on my previous branding books, my articles and the work of others in the field, I identified some four dozen ideas and packaged them into 20 principles. The result is an overview of what has emerged during the brand era that has allowed strong brands to win in tough marketplaces. Of these ideas, here are the home runs that have changed, if not transformed, marketing:

Think of brands as assets, with strategic value

In the late 1980s, the idea that a brand was an asset with equity began to get traction. That concept has since transformed marketing, which had been dominated for a half-century by the tactical view of marketing developed in the halls of Procter & Gamble. Starting in the ’80s, marketing was managed by a CMO who had a seat at the executive table. Marketing was now intimately involved in—if not a driver of—business strategy, and was no longer relegated to being a tactical arm. Marketing was now measured by brand equity in addition to short-term sales, and marketing resources were allocated to strategic brands and programs rather than to the big silos rich with funds and political power.

We have seen mass marketing, segmentation and globalization as transformational ideas in marketing. Considering brands as assets with equity should be in that set.

Communicate a multidimensional, strategic and flexible brand vision

There was a time when markets were stable, segmentation was simple, and a brand just needed a unique selling proposition that could be captured in a three-word phrase and worked everywhere. No more. A brand vision for today should be multidimensional and allow the brand to express itself. Some brands will aspire to have a personality that adds interest and energy as well as communicates attributes. Some may feature organizational values that provide a point of differentiation. Some will deliver social or self-expressive and functional benefits. What will differentiate and resonate will depend on the brand context and the brand strategy going forward. The brand vision thus cannot be constrained by a “fill in the box” model with pre-specified dimensions and no sense of priorities.

A brand vision should be strategic. It should reflect not only the existing offering but also the role that the brand will play in future offerings and in supporting other brands. The brand vision also should be flexible, as the goal should be to have strong brands in every product category or country. The adjustment can be made by interpreting a vision dimension differently, by changing the priority within the vision or by augmenting the vision in some contexts, and it may change as the market and strategy changes.

Find opportunities to create new subcategories

Growth, with some exceptions, only occurs by engaging in transformational or substantial innovation that creates “must-haves” that define new subcategories. Brand teams thus need to nurture “big” innovations in offerings, services or programs. One implication is that the competition in dynamic categories is shifting from “my brand is better than your brand” marketing to the creation of subcategories, and to managing their defining image so that the right subcategory wins, and so that your brand is the most—or the only—relevant brand.

“Subcategories have to be protected or the advantage of the innovator can be short-lived.”

Another implication is that subcategories have to be protected or the advantage of the innovator can be short-lived. One way to protect a subcategory is to brand the innovation, thereby creating a branded differentiator that can not only help communicate the “must-have,” but also provide a way to own it. Competitors can copy the innovation but not the brand.

Look to the customer sweet spot instead of selling the offering, brand or firm

The driving logic is that customers will seek out, discuss and be engaged in what they are interested in, and, with rare exceptions, offerings or firms do not qualify. The alternative is to become an active participant using a shared interest program around a customer’s “sweet spot.” For example, Pampers went beyond diapers by “owning” a “go-to” website for baby care.

A sweet spot reflects customers’ “thinking and doing” time, beliefs and values, activities and passions or possessions. Ideally, it would be a part of, if not central to, their self-identity and lifestyle, and reflect a higher-order value proposition much beyond the benefits provided by the offering. Connecting with a shared interest area provides avenues to a relationship much richer than that of an offering-based relationship. The positive feelings associated with the shared-interest area can lead to positive feelings about the brand. Further, people attribute all sorts of good characteristics to brands that they like, and with which they share values and interests. And a shared interest program should stimulate a social network because people talk about what they are interested in.

Manage the brand portfolio strategically

Naming a new product on an ad hoc basis potentially leads to brand confusion, brand damage and the loss of an opportunity to build brand platforms to support future strategies. Instead, a new product should have a brand that will support the new offering, will enhance the brand and will be effective in needed roles when additional products make their appearance. Branding new products strategically involves working with the brand relationship spectrum where descriptors, sub-brands, endorsed brands and shadow endorsers are employed to control the distance from the master brand. A sub-brand will allow some distance from a master brand, an endorsed brand more, a shadow endorser even more and a new brand the most.

Vertical extensions are risky but sometimes necessary when business realities dictate a vertical move. When moving into a value market, a brand may be put at risk, and even a strong brand may lack the prestige and credibility to support a super-premium offering. The use of a sub-brand or endorsed brand can reduce such risk when creating a new brand simply is not feasible.


Here are the next three big ideas:

Neutralize the silos: Breaking down the product, country and functional silos to create synergistic and resourced brand-building is becoming an imperative. Often, the best path to that goal is not to centralize and standardize, but to replace competition and isolation with cooperation and communication.

Energize the brand: Brands with energy have the visibility to be relevant and avoid the loss of equity suffered by brands that lack energy. A brand can gain energy by energizing the product or the marketing effort. Another route is to create or attach to branded energizers.

Embrace a higher purpose: In part because of the value of inspiring employees and creating a relationship with customers that goes beyond functional benefits, a high percentage of brands have taken on a higher purpose, sometimes around the environment or a social program but often around the offering itself, as in creating “insanely great products” or “delivering food that is natural and organic.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Marketing News.

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