Brand a signal of value

Within a day of the appearance of my last column in this magazine, I received an e-mail from a reader who was troubled by its lack of a conclusion. It seems that, in the course of critiquing the linguistic mire which envelops the practice of branding these days, I failed to answer the fundamental question, what is a brand?

Within a day of the appearance of my last column in this magazine, I received an e-mail from a reader who was troubled by its lack of a conclusion. It seems that, in the course of critiquing the linguistic mire which envelops the practice of branding these days, I failed to answer the fundamental question, what is a brand?

While I admit to a Socratic preference for doubt over certainty, I am also impatient with obfuscation, and as a businessman, pragmatic enough to know when to stop raising questions and start risking answers. So I replied that, for my money, a brand is a signal of value.

Value. Now there’s a word that’s been milked like an oil baron’s wallet in a Texas whorehouse. Value chain. Value added. Value creation. Shareholder value. Perceived value. Value investor. Oy.

Despite its increasingly multiple meanings, the word still has, well, value. I believe it has relevance in all of the instances quoted above.

But in the context of branding, the definition I shared with my esteemed reader (esteemed by this writer, at least) is paraphrased from Michael Porter’s 1986 book, Competitive Strategy. In the fourth chapter, which explores in detail the competitive strategy of differentiation, Porter refers to ‘signals of value’ as things like advertising, promotion, logos, product design, packaging, even the design of a company’s head office. In short, all of the things that commonly fall under the umbrella of brand communications.

Of course, the book was written five years before the explosion of branding literature that was kicked off by David Aaker’s landmark text, Managing Brand Equity, and at least 10 years before the notion of experiential branding came into being. But it is still relevant. Now that most of us agree that the list of contact points at which a brand can be experienced is as long as your value chain, the signals of value are legion. Hence the growing complexity of brand management.

The real ‘value’ of Porter’s term lies in the fact that the brand is just a signal, and as such, must be backed up by true sources of value in order to sustain credibility and competitive advantage. Ya gotta walk the talk.

Customers and investors may be attracted by the signal, but if no real value lies behind it, they’ll find out soon enough. That big shiny three-dimensional stainless steel logo out in front of Enron’s empty head office ain’t worth the iron pins it’s sitting on right now. The signal’s dead because the value’s evaporated.

In these black days of corner office fraud and boardroom blindness, value has taken on a self-righteous tone. Now that Wall Street has become the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, value investment is the only credible game in town. Slow and steady growth delivered by firms with solid fundamentals in traditional sectors suddenly looks like the only source of value left to lean on.

That plays right into the long-held notion that branding is not about building value overnight, but about a slow and steady process of development that begins with creating and sustaining awareness, establishing conversion and maintaining retention over time. The legion of now-extinguished roman candles that we saw during the dot-com boom, a period in which many proclaimed that the old rules of branding no longer applied, provides ample evidence that this is still the case.

A notable example of this unglamorous truth can be found in the decades-old tagline, ‘We try harder.’ In a recent article in Business 2.0, a study showed that Avis car rental, the author of that line, has consistently supported its most recognizable signal of value through an obsession with the details of its brand experience. In slow and steady fashion, Avis has subdivided its customer experience into over a hundred different steps in an effort to find ways of improving each and every one of them as much and as often as possible. The result is that it consistently tops the charts that measure brand loyalty.

While most people are attracted to the sexier, more emotional side of branding, Avis proves that finding and nurturing the true, underlying sources of value is the only way to keep the signals burning bright. Here’s to being number two.

Will Novosedlik is a brand strategist based in Toronto. He can be reached at novosedlik@hotmail.com.