What is a Brand really?

According to brand specialist Denise Lee Yohn, a brand is “What you do and how you do it.” This means the brand encompasses the company’s entire strategy: it’s raison d’etre, how it creates value and goes about its mission, and its core values. Then there are the beliefs people have about the brand – which comes from all interactions – how consumers viewthe product, service, and quality of the brand offering, and how the brand expresses itself through marketing communications. In this context marketing is just a small blip on the radar – a small cog in the machine of parts that make up the brand. If marketers embrace this idea of the brand by drawing on core values, culture, and customer experiences they can create an integrated brand identity and a truly compelling brand narrative that can engage consumers.

But do strategists and marketers really dictate brand identity?

I argue that brands should be seen for the diverse groups of people that actually consume the product. Consumers can define how they relate to a brand. When using social media, consumers do this very publicly and actually end up shaping brands themselves. We see this in a number of ways. Consumers often find and share new uses for products, changing the purpose or direction of a brand. We also see the prevalence of user created content from the likes of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter,  directing brand narrative. Marketers spend many resources trying to integrate the four walls/service experience and the range of social media platforms. But the fragmented media environment and many ways to engage means a brand means different things to different people, and a brand needs to carefully choose with who and how the brand engages.


Wyner points that a brand needs to understand their different segments of users in order to plan an engagement strategy. A brand is made up varying groups such as engaged guests, repeat non engaged guests, one time/occasional customers etc.. But often the most emotionally engaged clients are not the most profitable – for example the loyal bank customers who use expensive teller services daily, and maintain low day  to day balances are engaged but non profitable to the company. On the other hand a large bulk of non emotionally engaged clients often buy with more frequency so are more profitable to the brand, but my defect at any time. For this reason a brand must understand their customers to determine which groups to engage, and which will provide the best ROI and long term growth. Of course with the availability of rich media data marketers can isolate any of these groups, and target them using specific mediums and messages. As Wyner puts it, the question is, do you ‘invest in retaining loyal customers, improve commitment among the uncommitted, or “save those who are most at risk of defecting to competitors”?


Consumer identity and self expression


As people have increased actively engaging with brands, and finding brands to suite their lifestyles, more and more brands are using lifestyle alignment strategies to connect with consumers. This approach seeks to fill the consumer’s need for self expression through ‘lifestyle brands’. While this strategy can lead to a very strong connection between brand and user, there is a flip side. Chernev et al suggest that when brands go for lifestyle branding they move from solely within category competition and open themselves up to across category competition. This can be a significant downside as brands have to compete with many brands in different categories fighting to be the defining brand of their consumers’ lifestyles. This means that there could be food, clothing, restaurant, electronic, vehicle and fashion brands all competing to be the defining brand for the consumer. This can be failing strategy for late adaptors that that have to compete with established lifestyle brands such as Apple, Giorgio Armani, Porsche etc.


This may not be the case when marketing with millennials. Smith suggests that millennials choose brands that are not mainstream, gravitating towards brands that can make them feel different, often cutting edge or nostalgic/vintage brands. So it seems companies with older products and deep histories can find a fresh young market; or alternatively companies can still find lifestyle connections in a more targeted niche millenial segment, thus avoiding such heavy competition from established lifestyle brands. Assuming of course, they are using the right combination of techniques in order to intrigue the fickle, social-media driven, millennial consumer “just so.”





Chernev, Alexander, Ryan Hamilton, and David Gal, “Competing for Consumer Identity: Limits to Self-Expression and the Perils of Lifestyle Branding,” Journal of Marketing, 75 (May 2011), pp. 66-82.

Lee, D L, “Your Brand is What You Do and How You Do It” .AMA Blog:http://blog.ama.org/your-brand-is-what-you-do-and-how-you-do-it/Gordon Wyner ‘Who is your Brand’

Smith J, “Avoiding ‘Middle of the Road’ Brand Positioning”. AMA Marketing Insights: https://www.ama.org/publications/enewsletters/marketinginsightsnewsletter/pages/avoid-middle-of-the-road-brand-positioning.aspx

Wyner G, “Who is your Brand”. AMA Marketing News: https://www.ama.org/publications/MarketingNews/Pages/who-is-your-brand.aspx

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