In the ledger of modern marketing, a customer is an asset; a brand is a property. Following that Scrooge-ish construction, we can calculate the consumer lifetime value (CLV) of current users and monetize them into an estimate of the total value of a brand.
But that kind of accounting is fragile. Consumers create the value of a brand and no one owns consumers. When we grow too possessive or too sentimental about the relationship between brands and buyers, we get confused and begin to believe our own nonsense.
For example, have you noticed how torn advertisers are between their warm and fuzzy strategies to build "relationships" and "trust" with consumers, and their hard-edge database and pricing programs to squeeze profits out of them? When "trust" is mouthed as a marketing strategy, God save us. It's as naive as it is cynical.
The customer/brand relationship is built on performance. When trust becomes an issue, consumers call the Federal Trade Commission. Besides, you don't build trust by using the profits from old customers to subsidize price-off for new ones. It's not as if customers don't read, watch TV or open their mail. It simply shows a lack of respect. The marital equivalent of a roving eye.
Then there's "branding." Words may be the skins of ideas. But some words are more like bladders filled with air. "Brand" and "branding" qualify as bladder words. It astonishes me how steel-edge micromanagers turn squishy when they talk about The Brand. That kind of self-absorption can't be helpful.
"Brand," as a noun, is a name or trademark. Brand as an idea is a cluster of consumer perceptions attaching to a product sold under a specific name. Sure, the idea of a brand also exists in the mind of the marketer.
The abstraction of "brand" as a thing in itself, independent and more important than the consumer response that creates it, focuses on the wrong thing: the product, which a business can control, not the customer, who it cannot. In this sense, branding isn't marketing. It's simply another form of selling.
Our sudden focus on "relationship marketing" is a symptom of the narcissism encouraged by brand-centric thinking. Unless my bank or long-distance carrier has something significant to add to the quality of my life, I'd much prefer they not interrupt dinner. And millions of consumers (and the government) agree. It's not just the disruption and the trivialization of "relationship," but the cynicism. You really want to be my friend? How much does that cost?
Hard to say what it will cost. There's no one price anymore. Rebates, coupons, special deals abound. Airlines, telecom, credit cards-how much the consumer pays is often a matter of timing and the effort the consumer is willing to make to get the better deal. We have created the high-tech equivalent of a Turkish bazaar.
Worse yet, brands seldom give loyal customers the better deal. They're treated as hostages. I can open a BankOne Visa account and "save with a low introductory APR of 0%." But if I'm a cardholder in good standing, I pay 9.74%. AT&T sends others a check for $80 to switch, but I'm a customer so they send me a bill. I'm never certain I'm getting the right deal from the brands I'm loyally buying. Are you?
What ever happened to the sturdy old relationships built on "a good product at a fair price to everyone?"
Perhaps we need to think less about our brands and more about our customers. They do the real branding in America and they don't read the plan book. They also think about what a brand represents, like: "It tastes really fresh." "There are no extra charges." "They answer the phone." Or "There's less in the box." "They make me buy a package of six when I only need two." "They call me at home, but I can't reach them at work."
And there's that telephone message: "We apologize but all of our agents are busy helping other customers." As if it's our loutish impatience, not their short-staffing, that has created the problem.
Now there's nothing wrong with imaginative pricing, database mining and a modern phone system. But let's not kid ourselves. If trust and relationships are important, that's not how to build them.
And I suspect new Microsoft software will make it worse.
Erwin Ephron is a partner in Ephron, Papazian & Ephron, New York, a media consultancy (www.EphronOnMedia.com)