Over the past decades technology has wrought many changes around us.
The most important change has been is the way we communicate with and relate to the world around us and thus, at the deepest level, perceive our external and internal reality.
What has remained unchanged is that consumption continues to be the building block of our economies and also the building block of the self-image of the average individual (some may ask if not consumption than what – to my mind in a different world it could have been learning, self-discovery, exploration – a host of other “higher-order” things where consumption of goods and service would be relegated to the basic and the trivial).
Brands are an important part of the consumerist society. They are an important part of the productivity of a consumption-based economy. It is my thesis that the number of viable brands can be, in a circular fashion, both the cause and the result of economic growth (I have toyed with the idea of applying for doctoral research on such a thesis).
Brands are also an important part of the self-image of the average individual. This is because with the average individual, his or her perception and actions as a consumer, constitute an important part of self-image.
In advertising planning and creative development, at the simplest level, brands are defined by drawing a picture of the consumer who is or would be loyal to them.
In my personal toolbox as a brand strategy planner I have taken this a bit further. I have added a dimension that maps the individual as a composite of brands that he is loyal to. Such a composite picture leads to fresh insights of brand dynamics that can be useful in devising effective strategy.
While brands remain, as they have over the past eight decades, an important part of the self-image of consumers, the process by which brands become important is changing rapidly over the past decade or so.
Traditionally building a relationship with a consumer was a one-way ascending ladder captured so succinctly by the self-explanatory Awareness–Interest-Desire-Action (AIDA) model.
Under this model brand communication is one way and the brand, in the minds of its managers, has a singular goal – to get the consumer to act (buy) and then keep toggling between desire and action – while they got busy with getting more and more consumers up the AIDA ladder.
However, I believe that the AIDA model of brand building (there are many other, more complex, models of brand-building extant but all them reflect the core linear, one-way structure of the AIDA model) is fast loosing its touch with the reality of how consumers relate to brands.
The process of brand perception formation, in this age of the Internet and the mobile phone, is a negotiated, two-way process. It is a process in which the first step happens when an individual shares her views on and experiences with a brand with her peers.
While this might also have been happening in previous decades, there are two tectonic changes. Today the peer group is an ever-growing and amorphous cohort instead of a steady group of “meat space” friends. And the sharing is instantaneous and 24×7.
The content of this humongous river of 24×7 sharing almost inevitably has a substantial stream of views and stories about brands. Brands are ubiquitous and this incessant sharing has a voracious appetite for all kinds of issues and topics. If a brand does not have substantial number of views and stories floating about it in social media feeds and the blogosphere than, simply put, in this day and age, it is not a brand.
The views and stories extant in the interaction of consumers among themselves –chiefly on social media, the chat rooms, the messenger apps and the blogosphere – form a stream that can be termed as “Brand Narrative”.
The study and modeling of this “Brand Narrative” is going to be key to the next generation of brand-building theory and practice.
To my mind there are two key dimensions to Brand Narrative – Strength and Coherence.
Strength is a measure of the sheer quantum of brand mentions in the universe of consumer interactions.
It is to be noted that this measure of strength has little to do with the traditional measures instituted by the AIDA model. It’s a Big Data measure and not a measure resulting out of traditional sample-based consumer research – an early indicator perhaps of the rise of Big Data and the fall of traditional market research in the domain of marketing and brands.
It is my hypothesis that the strength of a brand’s Brand Narrative is more strongly correlated with interactions with a brand that are actively sought by an individual – the pulling up of a video on You Tube or Vine, the browsing of a shop or a shop window, the voluntary participation in a category or brand related activity – than with brand activity that is intrusive which includes all kind of advertising including digital advertising and that current darling of below-the-line warriors – brand activation and event sponsorships.
In my hypothesis the second important measure of “Brand Narrative” is Coherence. A brand might have a great amount of mentions, views and stories floating about in the consumer interaction universe but is this content cohering around a few themes? In fact these themes around which consumer views cohere are to my mind the brand’s ruling narrative.
Let me exemplify the above hypothesis by a hypothesized illustration. Take the case of Samsung and Apple.
The strength of Samsung’s brand narrative is probably fast catching up with that of Apple. But the coherence of the brand narrative of Apple is much greater than that of Samsung.
Apple’s brand narrative coheres around themes like Steve Job’s genius and American arrogance (reflected in the price of Apple products) and at a more stratified level the role of design as reflected in the relationship between form and function.
My hypothesis is that the strength of Samsung’s brand narrative does not cohere and that is one of the key reasons why Samsung’s brand equity -as reflected in the anticipation of products from the brand and the price premium they command- has plateaued.
What are the themes that Samsung’s brand narrative could have cohered around? Which brings us to the question – can brand management- decide and promote the themes around which brand narratives cohere?
Can Samsung decide and promote the themes around which the brand narrative will cohere – say “innovation the Asian way”? My hypothesis is decidedly not.
Can Apple after the death of Steve Jobs decide that their narrative will now have a theme centered on the genius of Jonathan Ive – their design guru?
Apple seems to be trying, going by the high-decibel PR around Ive reflected in stories about him in high profile media outlets. I am not sure whether currently one of the themes that the ongoing brand narrative of Apple is cohering around is Ive but if that is the case, the hypothesis is, that it would not be directly co-related to the intensity of the PR effort around Ive.
So what is the role that brand management needs to play with respect to their brand’s narrative?
My view is that they must Listen and Synchronize in the case of positive themes and Listen, Source and Counter in the case of negative themes.
Listen by putting into place the right Big Data and Analytics streams.
Synchronise by harmonising the brand’s controlled messaging with the positive themes around which their brand’s narrative is cohering.
In the case of negative themes – themes that hurt a brand’s equity – brand management need to run a “detective” operation to trace back to the source of the theme. The source could be a feature of the brand’s product feature or marketing strategy. The source could be a negative experience of an individual or group with a high Klout score (a measure of the influence as an opinion former). Once the source is determined the brand management can run a counter measure that could be as easy as modifying a product feature and as tough as trying to subtly influence an overly sensitive, opinionated and thorny individual or group of individuals.