The coauthored brand story
Brand managers have long lived with the myth that they are in control of their brand’s story, but actually they are only one of many cultural producers who author and disseminate brand meaning. A brand is a cultural artifact, a vessel of meaning that is filled as the brand circulates through culture being used by various groups of people in day-to-day living.
Brand authors include the brand’s owner and its managers, but also the brand’s consumers, critics, influencers, and other meaning-makers and gatekeepers who create and contribute brand meaning as they endorse or reject the brand, or use it as a marker to connote meaning. While the brand’s managers are prominent meaning makers of the brand as they introduce a new brand to the world establishing its intended meaning, known as its “brand identity,” once the brand enters society, other authors begin contributing as the brand’s identity morphs into its “brand image,” the cultural meaning of the brand that collectively lives in the minds of consumers.
The most that brand managers can hope for is a role in shepherding and curating the brand’s meaning through continued marketing communications designed to maintain aspects of the brand’s identity alongside the efforts of these other authors. However, powerful voices outside of the brand have the potential to counteract these efforts. Both consumers, who choose or reject the brand based on how well or poorly it supports their identity projects, as well as others endowed with cultural capital and a platform for meaning-making (such as journalists and influencers) can work to either complement the desired meaning of the brand’s managers or actively work to combat it. In today’s world where information spreads quickly and broadly, each individual author of brand stories has the potential for great influence.
So, what is a brand to do? Operating in a shared meaning-making system, brand managers need to recognize and value the meaning-making power of other authors and work to cajole and enlist them into supporting their desired brand identities. Brands do this by first, ensuring that the meaning they put forth with their brand identity is valuable to consumers because of its cultural relevance and resonance, and second, by clearly and consistently communicating this brand identity over time.
Brand managers cultivate and educate strong, positive brand communities, filled with consumers who stand at the ready to support and defend the brand if it finds itself under attack from other authors. Brands court cultural influencers through outreach, paid support, or free products and services, and entice them to author brand stories that endorse brand identity. Brand managers, through all of their brand’s customer and cultural touchpoints, work diligently to earn the trust of their consumers and of society more broadly by matching the brand’s actions to its espoused values. All of these actions are designed to spur others toward positive meaning-making for the brand, dynamically building a well of positive brand equity as the brand’s meaning continuously evolves.
Brand equity represents the sum total of the set of cognitive, emotional, and attitudinal assets and liabilities linked to a brand that adds to or subtracts from the value provided by the product to consumers. As such, it can be a motivator for purchase and an enhancer of consumption. It is a perceptual frame that has the capacity to differentially change the way consumers choose, experience, and value a product and it is the direct result of brand meaning-making.
Brand managers will never be able to prevent other authors from contributing to brand meaning. However, by continuously working with brand allies to collectively fill their brands over time with strong, memorable, and valuable brand stories, brand managers can mitigate the effects of those who fight against them by drowning out their negativity with positive voices, tipping the balance of brand equity away from the negative and toward the positive.
Jill is a senior lecturer of business administration at Harvard Business School and branding expert.