Passikoff: Is Your Brand Really a Brand?

“What  about all those famous people online and on TV? Aren’t they brands?” The answer is, “No, they’re celebrities.” Being a celebrity does not QED a “brand” make.

Where you fall on the Commodity-to-Human Brand Continuum – determines the answer to the ultimate question, “Are you really a brand?”

Are you really a “brand”? Not everything is. Sorry, but that’s the way it is. Everyone is not a brand. Everything is not a brand. People and things may be known, even well-known, but that doesn’t make them brands. Calling yourself a “brand” doesn’t make you a brand. Calling everything a “brand” is problematic and simplistic. Creating a real brand is never simplistic, so why would people think it was?

I blame Tom Peters. Mr. Peters knows a lot about “excellence,” but did branding a disservice in his 1997 Fast Company article, “The Brand Called You.” He advocated anyone could be a brand. In doing so opened a veritable Pandora’s Box of branding horrors, á la personal branding, launching an anyone-can-be-a-brand mentality.

In 2005 Brand Keys conducted a U.S./U.K. survey examining 1,700 B2C and B2B products and services to determine what degree they were “brands.” We measured three things absolutely necessary to be adjudged an actual brand. The degree to which products and services were

  1. Imbued with meaning,
  2. Differentiated from the competition, and
  3. Emotionally engaging to consumers.

Sure, you have to be “out there” and known, but that’s the marketing part of “brand marketing.” First you have to be a brand.

It turns out, consumers, the  competition, the marketplace, and category and customer values had not been frozen in place for the past 16 years. Everything changed, true beforethe pandemic, which only obfuscated an already-muddled brandscape.

So, to provide clarification we conducted an expanded version of the study to identify what it means to be a “brand” today, and revised and restructured our Commodity-to-Human Brand Continuum®.

Our version 2.0, conducted again in the U.S. and U.K., this time included 1,994 products and services in 128 categories, B2C, B2B, and D2C, digital, analog, traditional, online, bricks-and-mortar, clicks-and mortar, and app-based.

The methodology – independently validated to correlate highly (0.08+) with consumer behavior and brand success – uncovered a series of loci along which products and services could be placed, identifying the degree to which products and services were actual brands.

Our new version of the continuum includes brief definitions of where “products and services” could fall, along with some examples provided by the consumer assessments. The new analysis, by more accurately situating products and services, allows marketers to sidestep semantic arguments and more effectively and strategically differentiate, engage, and meaningfully market on the basis of a product’s or service’s real status.

The degree of “brandness” (and consumer emotional engagement potency) escalates as one migrates from left to right. As brand differentiation increases, the sector rises. While we readily acknowledge one can be profitable as a “label,” and fortunes have been amassed in “commodities,” they still do not qualify as brands.

brand continuum

Commodity: Products and services so basic they are not differentiated in the minds of the consumer. Always interchangeable with goods of the same type, usually sold on price.

Label:   The name of a retail store or manufacturer identifying goods. Often providing information about the product.

Category Placeholder: Products or services with universally strong awareness. Known butnot known for anything in particular other than occupying a space in a category. Has values so basic and undifferentiated they do not emotionally engage consumers. Products or services that at one time were brands, but are no longer brands as 21st Century consumers define them.

21st Century Brand: A name, term, and/or symbol identifying goods and services of one seller versus another. Strongly imbued with values and articulated meaning as to be easily and strongly differentiated from the competition, taking on an identity by itself and engendering high consumer emotional engagement.

Human Brand: A nomenclature created by Brand Keys in 1991 describing living human beings representing 100% of the values of the products or service to which their names are attached. This designation represents the highest level of imbued meaning and differentiation as living embodiments of particular value sets (“owned” by the human being), which can be seamlessly, successfully, and profitably transferred to products and services.

“What  about all those famous people online and on TV? Aren’t they brands?” The answer is, “No, they’re celebrities.” Being a celebrity does not QED a “brand” make. Models in fragrance or cosmetic ads are not brands. They are a subset of celebrities. Famous and beautiful, hired to impart imagery to products, but are not, in and of themselves, the brand. Eminent or legendary businessmen are not brands. Elon Musk and Richard Branson are not brands. They’re entrepreneurs who created brands like Tesla and Virgin. There are businesspeople who founded brands like Proctor & Gamble or Henry Ford or Coco Chanel. And how brands like those have been managed will determine whether they are now “Category Placeholders” or “21st Century Brands.”

“Everything-is-a-brand” plays well in classrooms and Tweets and on refrigerator magnets. In the real marketplace, however, today’s marketers must be able to accurately pinpoint their products’ and services’ brand bona fides. By doing so they can more effectively and strategically plan, promote, market – even price – on the basis of a products’ real status as a “brand.”

Ask yourself these questions: What do you offer beyond primacy-of product? How are you different and differentiated? Do you represent meaningful, resonant values to consumers? Are you emotionally engaging? Are you able to meet or exceed expectations consumers hold for their conception of the Category Ideal?

How you answer these questions – and where you fall on the Commodity-to-Human Brand Continuum – determines the answer to the ultimate question, “Are you really a brand?”

Robert PassikoffRobert Passikoff is founder and CEO of Brand Keys. He has received several awards for market research innovation including the prestigious Gold Ogilvy Award and is the author of 3 marketing and branding books including the best-seller, Predicting Market Success.  Robert is also a frequent contributor to TheCustomer.

Photo by stefan moertl on Unsplash

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