If you asked a cowboy what a brand was, he would talk about the permanent marks made on his cow hides by a hot iron shaped in a particular way to denote his ownership of those cows.
In short, for him a brand would be a mark of ownership.
Indeed this definition goes back to the earliest known incidence of branding I am aware of. It comes from over 2,000 years ago, when one oil lamp maker in Rome started stamping the word ‘Fortis’ onto his lamps. It showed that he had made them and they were his lamps, well at least until he sold them in the market.
Which raises some interesting questions about this definition in relation to marketing. Is a brand a mark of ownership or a mark of manufacturing or creation? And who does own a brand?
On the ownership of brands my personal opinion is that an abdication has taken place. “The company brand owner is dead, and the consumer is the new king.” Over the last few years, many marketing people have handed over ‘ownership’ of their brand to their consumers. It is now increasingly accepted that as consumers have their own ‘perceptions’ of the brand and can shape its future, they are the ‘owners’.
Without trying to dispute either the importance of consumers, the notion that an individual’s perception of brand is personal, or indeed the inability of companies to control every aspect of what will shape brand perceptions, I would like to state the case for the old kings – the brand owners – to reclaim ownership of their brands
Firstly, I am no lawyer, but the notion that a (marketing) director of a company which legally ‘owns’ a brand – and that is in turn valued highly on the company’s balance sheet – can publicly proclaim that they do not really ‘own’ that brand, seems patently dangerous to me.
If companies do not ‘own’ their brands, how can they expect to defend their rights over them? Giving up ownership could have unwanted consequences. Is it giving a green light to counterfeiters to reproduce, replicate and trade-off brands? If challenged, the counterfeiters can simply refute any claims of damages. You don’t own the brand, they do.
Secondarily, it is undoubtedly true that we all have individual perceptions and experiences of the brands we know, and we can even feel like we ‘own’ at least a part of those brands. But do we really own the object, the brand in question?
As consumers, they may be able to influence the brand, and even control it to some extent. They are perhaps the most powerful influencing force or pressure group. But they are not, and never will be, the owners. We can stop buying a brand, we can ignore it, we can suggest and influence alterations, but we do not enact change or final control.
I would draw a parallel with the Mona Lisa, which enjoys ‘awareness’ or fame in the way a brand does, and which engenders a wide range of different perceptions. In other words, everyone has a perception of the painting in our mind, but it would seem foolish for me to suggest that any or all of us actually own the Mona Lisa.
Thirdly I believe it is vital that marketers continue to recognise the importance of their role as brand owners. Individual perceptions are crucial, but branding is all about the creation and management of meaning en masse. Branding is a social phenomenon. Brands – particularly the ‘big’ national and global brands – are fundamentally ‘mass’ tools. Brands aren’t about single transactions: they work in multiplicity, with many people, and on many occasions. Brands are a means by which their owners do their best to manage multiple relationships simultaneously.
It is the role of the brand owner, through their brand and all its points of interface, to try to create and then manage the best perceptions of that brand.
Finally I would suggest we should be deeply concerned if consumers were completely in charge. Sometimes consumers don’t know what they want, or at last don’t know until they are offered it. Brand ownership and creation is often about innovation, changing what already exists and creating new things. If the consumers owned the brand and their word was final, then many, many brand innovations would be killed before they started. As Henry Ford said, “If I had asked the consumer what they wanted, they would have told me they wanted a faster horse”.
A brand owner should have ‘that vision thing’. That is, the belief that what you are doing is right, and that it should be done even if those around you don’t always agree. Walt Disney, W.K. Kellogg, Richard Branson, Phil Knight (the founder of Nike) and Anita Roddick (the founder of The Body Shop) believed in what they were doing. They believed in creating something that existed in their minds long before it existed in the minds of what were often, at first, very dubious consumers.
So I believe that there has been a significant shift of power in the relationship between brand owners and consumers and that we have now reached a position where branding is an organic and ‘negotiated’ unit of social and economic currency. However I would still argue that companies own their brands and so brands can and should still be defined as a mark of ownership.