Our Measurement Problem Begins With Definitions

For Starters, What's a Brand?

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Jonathan Salem Baskin
Jonathan Salem Baskin
What's a brand? You realize that no two people, let alone two marketers, agree on the answer. It's a word, a metaphor, an analogy, a concept or some sort of thing with an existence and personality dependent on whomever is doing the defining, where they're doing it, and what they hope to accomplish.

It's funny, really. We base our professional lives on something as precise as the definitions of "love" or "happiness" and, like those ideas, we are convinced that brands are vitally important and absolutely, objectively real. Then we wonder why they're so hard to measure, or why our C-suite associates have such trouble sharing (and consistently funding) our beliefs. Mention ROI all you want, but most CMOs are in the verse business, not prose.

How many times will you talk about a brand today? Will it be a noun, as in the name of a product or service, or will it be a synonym for a business unit? If you use it in the sense of "That's great branding, Izzie," will it be a gerund about the outcomes attributed to marketing or a description of the actions thereof? Might you use "brand" as an adjective ("Our brand kickoff event") or, again, a noun ("That stunt did wonders for the brand")?

There's a greater chance you'll creatively riff with your definitions: Your conversations might be about architecture, awareness, character, DNA, icon, idea, image, likability, position, promise, reference point, reputation, suggestion or page on Facebook, and your efforts an ad, collaboration, conversation, distribution, engagement, evangelism, exchanges, listening, loyalty, relationships or flashes on an fMRI screen. Brands could be what people think, imagine, consider, ponder, share, believe or possess, or they could be things that exert pressure and influence on folks (as in "that brand is irresistible"). Each of us has our own definition. I like to say brands are like haiku.

The only thing on which everyone will agree is that brands and branding are embedded in culture, society, economics, politics, science and all of human history. They're everywhere and everything.

But what, then, isn't a brand? A specific, consistent definition, or so it seems. This is in spite of academic institutions rewarding doctorates in its service, not to mention the zillions of books written about it annually. It's no surprise that a typical measure of brand value is to calculate the absence of any better explanation for a portion of a stock price. Consumers pay more for brands because there are no obvious functional reasons for them to do so. Bad news, good news, chatter -- it's all branding of some sort or another. Bring on the telepathy next.

We couldn't do a better job of earning an inferiority complex and the disdain of business operators if we actively tried.

It would be totally cool if the various industry associations with skin in this game -- marketers, advertisers, WOMmers -- got together and developed standards for definition and measurement, just like every other industry that wants to be taken seriously. Accountants, lawyers, even chiropractors share common rules. Yet our industry has grown comfortable with an arrangement that gives us poetic license in our purview, even if means we're chronically misunderstood and under-appreciated.

It's a devil's bargain, and I think CMO efficacy and job security suffer for it in the long term. Even if you have an internal definition of your brand and the dashboard numbers to prove it, your team members still think differently on the subject, and this contributes directly to shortcomings in planning and discrepancies in analysis. While we wait for the industry to step up, maybe it's time for you to switch from telling people that branding is everything and start defining what it isn't? Here are three thought-starters:

Differentiate from awareness. Recognition of your company name, logo, mascot or slogan is a fundamental goal of marketing, but it's not branding, is it? Perhaps your definition should include something about reliability or repeatability, so headlines for your hipster launch party or a mention on "Celebrity Apprentice" don't count. It's good that people know what business you're in but that's a prompt for your brand more than an indication of its substance.

Clarify the function of time. Time is considered an absolute good for most definitions of brand, as in "the more time spent with 'it' the better for the business," and it gives us brand metrics for viewership of funny videos just like it supports GRPs. Shouldn't your definition of brand have more to do with the meaning -- i.e., the content, not generically but specifically -- that you want consumers to realize through their time wasted, err, spent with your branding? Think of the marketing activities you'd stop judging on their brand value if you were more interested in what meaning they communicated.

Attach your definition to actions. Ultimately, shouldn't every definition of brand be based on measuring the likelihood of consumers to do things instead of think them? Branding could be defined by the ways you identify and unlock those behaviors, and your marketing the tactics used to prompt them. This new perspective would probably exclude many actions that were considered "good for the brand" and did little else real or meaningful. Shouldn't better brands do better business?

So what's a brand? I have no idea, but I think we'd all benefit from a shared definition, even if it meant that we sacrificed some nuance in its expression. I love poetry more than the next guy but prose is the language of the people who sign my paychecks. And, while it wouldn't satisfy all the artistic needs of consumers, measuring it differently might actually help us sell more.

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, author, and speaker. Read his blog at dimbulb.net and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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