By Jonathan Salem Baskin

Flipping the Telescope: Redefining Branding So We Can Measure It

Branding tends to be defined as something different, sometimes separate, and usually more than marketing. Most definitions have two common elements:

  1. A belief that a company can manage brand as a certain set of graphics and positioning, combined with mental states and associations, and
  2. An expectation that an effective presentation of these elements will benefit the company

Our measures of brand, if we choose to measure it at all, usually involve gauging how successfully we’ve done the latter (effectively presenting) for the former (to create a mental image). Branding is often a classy synonym for awareness of the company, product or service name; rarely is it causally connected to the marketing and sales funnel through which consumers tread in order to reach a purchase, and into which marketing ROI tools provide that dramatically improved and meaningful visibility.

While we get ever-better at measuring very discrete but small marketing expenditures, we spend huge sums of money on another category — branding — that tells people things they don’t care about, at times when they aren’t paying attention, and in ways that they don’t remember or use. Or not. We just don’t know for sure.

This isn’t such a good thing for marketers.

We often have to argue twice as hard, and then repeat ourselves, to get branding budgets approved. It’s sometimes difficult to get anybody else in the organization truly engaged and on-board with the brand. When the business turns south, branding budgets are among the first to get cut.

Flipping the Telescope

Imagine if we could utterly change the way we think and talk about brands. Instead of inventing ever-newer or more complex models to define and track branding success as an inside/out activity — telling people what they should think about an abstraction separate from the business — what if we ‘flipped the telescope’ and looked for brand in the very experience and individual steps consumers take toward and through purchase?

  • Perhaps look at the buyers progression through the funnel as the brand, not something beneath or next to it.
  • Everything that consumers do within the funnel is a brand behavior that can be stated, understood, casually linked to other behaviors, and modeled over time to be an analytic and predictive tool for marketing expenditure.
  • The influences on those behaviors, which are currently considered elements of brand, would be reduced to what they’ve in essence always been: influences. Prompts. Triggers. Tactics in support of a broader strategic goal.
  • So we’d forsake our reliance on (or belief in) implicit or inherent values of brand that envelope or cushion consumer choice; brand is within and synonymous with each moment and experience.
  • Branding would become the set of sequential, causally-dependent experiences that take consumers from never-heard-of-you status to let-me-give-you-my-business-again habit.
  • The measure of that process — likelihood of each step succeeding, cost, impact of externalities, time required, etc. — would be the measures of branding success and brand health/equity.

Such an approach must resonate with your own thinking and experience, perhaps not as a professional marketer, but in that other life of yours (i.e. normalcy). You ever do anything because of the marvelousness of some branding? Of course not. You switch mobile phone carriers because your current provider screwed you over, or a new one has a better deal. Same goes for hotels, retailers, or any service provider. You buy a car based on a long list of factors, some self-imposed (you are intrigued by a new model) and others imposed on you (dead engine in the dead of winter, for instance). You drink a new soda flavor because it’s in front of you, or a restaurant served it to you irrespective of your request.

We experience life as a series of events, not ideas. Events are what trigger decisions; they’re connected and lead to one another, sometimes the latter wholly dependent on the former. You know this when marketing violates these dependencies. If your mobile rate plan is incomprehensibly complicated, or your service provider just threw you a bone, it doesn’t matter how adorable their ad spokesmodel might be. The salesman at the car dealership kills your interest if he starts talking financing when you’re still at the ‘how does it run?’ step.

So does all of this change when we go from thinking as consumers to thinking as marketers?

For some reason, we’ve chosen to separate ideas of brand from all of the communications, activities and other efforts that prompt all of the decisions that get people to the point of buying, and then keep them buying. Brand exists above all of that mundane noise; sure, consumers need product information, and they get it through marketing communications.

But time and place matter just as much, because there’s a chronology to arriving at and making decisions, whether we’re learning math, looking for a new MP3 player, or trying to locate a better parts vendor. People can think any number of things, but unless they do something, they might as well be thinking about, well, UFOs. In fact, many of them are thinking about UFOs, or other things you just don’t want to know about.

Experience is about far more than time and place: it extends past, around, and through the purview of standard brand marketing. While the experts focus inward on the esoteric attributes of brand and brand experience – what your customers or consumers are supposed to think, feel or attribute – those very same target purchasers are busy living, sharing, sampling, comparing, commenting, or otherwise applying hundreds of other action verbs to their lives.

The brand isn’t something that people consume in ads and on web sites, nor thoughts in contrast or mirrored against that absolute definition of your brand as outlined on the last slide presentation.

Rather, brand is a living, real-time experience that people define and constantly re-define by their actions. They don’t experience the brand, but rather brand is the sum of their experience.

Welcome to a definition of brand that is outward-focused, based not on what a company thinks of itself, but rather on the behavior of its customers:

  • Communicating things is the tactic
  • Prompting experiential moments is the strategy
  • Delivering sales is the objective

Implications for Your Business

The simplest and most immediate implication a new definition of brand might have for your business is that you start making different — and far more measurable — decisions the moment you finish reading this article.

When it comes to branding decisions, merely ask yourself (or your agency or team) how (or if) an activity relates to:

  • What you want your customers to do
  • Where you expect them to do it
  • When you think it might/should happen
  • Why what you’re contemplating builds on the step immediately prior
  • How it prompts the next one

Immediately, you’ll see which activities fail to provide anything near such detail, so then you’ll have two choices:

  • Define it differently, and force connections (so, for instance, ‘good PR’ after a trade show might have been approved on the basis of its contribution to your brand. Link it more directly to desired actions, among a target consumer group, which would then yield better direction on the content that needs to be publicized, and how/where it should appear), or
  • Skip it

Yes, risk not doing something. Violate a cardinal rule of budget protection and job preservation, and don’t spend the money. If you subsequently realize how and where the decision impacted you, you can always add it back…with the added benefit of possessing specific knowledge on the activity. If it’s a waste to begin with, you’ll win friends within the organization.

Of course, the implications are far more extensive and deep than changing your decision-making process. Seeing your brand as a set of behaviors, not ideas, lets you plan brand communications in a more interactive, real-time way, and to involve the other departments in your organization not just as mouthpieces for brand ID, but rather as co-creators of brand experiences. It can also provide you with a paradigm for mapping technology tools, and use all of that customer data that you’re likely sitting on (and perhaps using only as a glorified mailing list or sales promotion trigger in some overly-expensive CRM implementation).

Conclusion

Our traditional definition of brand was vague and incomplete for a reason: we didn’t possess the experience or tools to better define or track it. So much of the influences of content and biology on consumer behavior were simply outside the purview of what we could hope to accomplish. There was a there ‘out there’ because we couldn’t see otherwise.

The game has changed, thanks in part to the progress made on measuring marketing ROI and the invention of technology tools (both hardware that crunches customer data, and the software that lets us map and use it).

And within this change, you have the opportunity to change, also.

Start small. Think of ways to modify your planning or analytic processes to deliver brand as behavior(s), not just ideas. Consider replacing your traditional brand lexicon of position, statement, and other declarative, inside-out nouns, with the verbs of action and behaviors. So instead of ideas, think actions. Don’t envision brand as telling your customers things, but rather as opportunities to prompt behaviors: request, enter, check, vote, play, join, exchange, add, inquire, plan, test, compare, reply, personalize, share, modify, replenish, respond, anticipate, and repeat.

We know now that marketing ROI and making your brand accountable are two versions of the same approach, really. Branding has just been left out of the latest development because we approached it differently.

All it takes is changing your perspective a bit. Or flipping the telescope.

Jonathan Salem Baskin is President of Baskin Associates, Inc., a consultancy specializing in improving brand performance. He is also the author of the Dim Bulb blog, where you can get a healthy dose of fresh perspectives on branding every week. His book “Branding Only Works on Cattle” was released in 2008.