<p>Professor Kevin Lane Keller’s Strategic Brand Management is held as the bible of branding by many students of business and practicing managers. The E B Osborn Professor of Marketing at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, tells Sayantani Kar that brands should not get flustered by the social media, on the sidelines of an event organised in Mumbai by Draftfcb Ulka’s Cogito Consulting. Edited excerpts.
Which is that aspect of branding that most underplayed or ignored as corporations continue to chase the bottom line?
To me it is probably the product. It is one of the most important things. When it comes to branding, people sometimes get so caught up in the name, the logo, the advertising, that the image that the product, which is so central, has to take a backseat. You have to give a good product and make sure the design falls into place as well. Sometimes marketers ignore that a little bit more than I like.
The other most ignored aspect is that of channels — things like distribution, retailing, where you sell. In India, it is changing rapidly. Till now, it was very fragmented. Yes, there has been some consolidation but we will see what happens going forward. It is important to get your product out there in the right way, to the right people.
In general, if there is one area that gets overplayed, it is communication. Everyone’s enamoured by advertising, digital and social media. In the process, they tend to ignore the hugely important aspects of channels, products, and even pricing.
What is your suggestion for companies as to the right way to weave in channels into their branding?
That calls for integrated marketing. You have to decide which channels you are going to use and how you want those channels to partner with you. You have to make sure that those channels know what your brand is all about and the kind of promotions that can enhance your equity and increase your sales.
What are your other concerns in your research on brands given the protracted economic slowdown across markets?
What I find fascinating right now is the extent of change companies should bring about in their branding. Everyone thinks that all the ground rules are changing. For example, people think that social media has turned things upside down. I don’t think that is right.
The old rules still apply. A lot of the basic strategies and concepts of building a brand are valid still. Of course, some of the tactics have changed. To get that balance right you need to ask, ‘What do I as a marketer need to keep doing, and what do I need to change in order to keep strong brands strong’. Nike, for example, has always got it right. Through the years, they are always doing things with technology, the products, the channels, communication including social media.
They figured ways to bring the iPod in with Nike Plus. They have done a lot of neat things in the global community. On the other hand, Burger King is an example of being a tad impatient. It got engrossed in social media but made it more about entertainment without tying it in with the brand so much. It tried to break the rules, and the bad things overtook the good steps they had taken.
When you talk about brand equity, is it more about the corporate brand or is product branding still relevant? To what extent is brand architecture important in all this?
It depends on the strategy. Some firms use the corporate brand across the board. Some of them have combinations with sub-brands.
Brand architecture is huge. I have to say that is one area where a lot of companies are lacking. Companies have grown so much that when they realise their brands are important, they ended up stretching them. That is where a good brand architecture can make all the difference. It is the one thing I end up working with on almost every project. It doesn’t start with brand architecture but somewhere along the way, we get to it.
And how do you measure brand equity today?
Brand valuation is one thing and that is literally in currency units. It has changed over the years and people have improved their methodologies. Interbrand does it and their processes have a logic. They capture the value of the intangible asset as represented by the brand and figure out how valuable that is going to be in the future. There are other ways, of course, which focus more on the consumer’s relationship with the brand.
You say consumer insight remains one of the starting points for branding. Has the process of gathering them changed with the advent of new technology?
Obviously, online you can collect information to try and develop insights. This couldn’t have been done before. But it is complementary; you still need to do other kinds of things, both qualitative and quantitative. The thing about consumer insights is that there are so many different approaches you can take to learn about their behaviour but they all have their pitfalls. So, you have to do more than one.
Has the social media made brand insights more random?
That is a worry. You have to know how to interpret the information. Social media gives you an opportunity to learn things but it may not be representative of the broader audience. It looks like social media might suggest the hypothesis, what consumers might be thinking and doing. But you would want to confirm the findings through some other methods.
Who would you say is the custodian of the brand in a corporation? Is it changing hands from the CMO?
The CMO is still important. She is the brand leader within the organisation and has to be the strongest advocate of the brand. You sure want the CEO or the managing director to believe in the brand too. What I have seen in most companies, and often, the ones which are the most successful, is that the founder and the CEO are strong brand advocates themselves. The brand is their baby. Say, Nike or the Virgin Group. There are lessons to be learnt from these companies about how they treat their brand and get their employees to understand and believe in the brand. The challenge is how do you replicate that in an organisation where you don’t have the founder still or if the founder goes away for some reason.
Everyone talks of brand advocacy by outsiders. What about the employees? Is it more difficult if there are no owners around?
It can be more difficult. Because an owner is so passionate, it is almost instinctive. A lot will depend on the CEO to appreciate branding. I have seen that with American Express, where the CEO did not come from a marketing background but over the last 10 years has managed to establish the brand around the world. Of course, he has a great CMO too.
Do you see branding shifting to the internet now or will it still be about traditional media like television and the print?
Branding will definitely move towards the internet. The mobile is going to be huge too. Because one aspect of branding is to build a relationship and one can do it much better with a mobile phone. Yes, it will be tactical but more than that it will allow the customer to interact with the brand.
Has the need for corporate governance made branding less important, especially after the downturn? Is branding still relevant?
Corporate governance is a part of branding, especially if you are a corporate brand. Branding is all about creating differences, in not being a commodity. A recession only makes it clearer that you do not want to compete as a commodity, that is, only on price. The key is to figure out meaningful differences you can create with your product.
The smartest thing that brands did after the downturn was concentrate on value. Recession teaches you about value because consumers really look for value in those times. Value is a very complex concept, it tells the consumer what are the benefits she gets at what cost. So it is a lot about framing it right to get them to appreciate it. People tend to focus on price but there are other costs like opportunity cost, confidence, security and reliability. There are a lot of benefits that come into play that might not be functional but emotional.
How does one firefight a branding initiative gone wrong?
If it is a full-borne crisis, the key is to be swift and sincere, which does not have to be about saying that you were wrong. But it is about saying that you care about your brand and what customers think, that you want to know why they are unhappy and what went wrong. But brands that find themselves in the midst of a full-blown crisis are the ones who stall and fail to act sincerely and argue. If it is not a crisis, but about revitalising a brand, then it is about working out what equity to work with, which combinations to retain.