OVERPROTECTING A BRAND'S EQUITY... A CAUTIONARY TALE.

By Patricia H. Chapman ~ President & Founder of Stone Soup Marketing

Just listen to how we talk about our brands these days:

Define the brand's equity
Protect the brand's equity
Guard the brand's equity
Police the brand's equity

Yikes! How we talk! As a new products person, this is really nervous-making! Not that a brand doesn't have equity not that a brand doesn't have strengths and limitations not that a brand doesn't connote certain images and qualities to a consumer to help get their attention on a product A brand does certainly do that, and all of that is the good stuff.

BUT consider that how we are talking about them may just close our minds to their new opportunities (it's not in the definition); may make us risk-averse even at the concept phase (and a certain amount of risk must be taken for many innovative and attention-getting new products); may encourage us to underscore the same points about our brand again and again without adding any needed news (color this brand "boring") and "guarding" and "policing" is certainly not as much fun as "breaking out" and "running for it" (cut to Von Trapp family coming over the hill to the tune of "Sound of Music").

No wonder, in this age of guarding, protecting and policing our brand's equity are we are reading articles about the "Death of Brands." This, at a time when we need strong brands more than ever to get attention and make click-quick statements that pause consumers long enough to stop and shop.

THE WORDS WE USE ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM

Studies have long proven that the language we use, the accepted available vocabulary, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in what we can see and understand about everything in, and outside of, our world. Language and the paradigms it sets up has long provided fodder for theologians and psychologists.

Just recently, I read the results of a study with senior citizens. It turns out that a change in vocabulary - moving from adjectives like "senile" and "diseased" to words like "wise" and "astute" - had an immediate effect on the way senior citizens walked. Their pace picked up. They walked better. And the more walking a senior citizen does, the better off they are in many ways, both psychologically and physically.

Now, back to our brands. On some level - actual or psychological - there comes a point where "guarding" and "protecting" the brand's equity may encourage "more of the same" and discourage the stretch and evolution of equity that a brand needs to stay relevant and to grow.

Real brand names, on real products, in the real world, with real competitors can get their equity (measured by consumer perception) changed by doing nothing. Better to be in charge of that change, than in control of a static-seeming definition.

Holding the current definition of a brand's equity in the forefront of any new products research may color where we allow our brand to grow. It may limit what we hear and see as we pursue new opportunities for our brands. It may discourage us from going for something really new, that can take the brand in a healthy new direction.

Sometimes I think the brands are talking (through the mouths of target consumers), but we've forgotten how to listen. Or, we can't hear what they're saying because our frame of reference is "guarded" and closed. Either way, we may be selling our brands short when we make the mistake of protecting what a brand means today at the expense of what it can potentially mean tomorrow. Be all that you can be as long as it's in the current definition.

(Where do all those ideas go that are really good, but not in the brand's definition? Locked up in brand-upstart jail? Try to escape to make the brand great?)

Recently, in discussing a very successful concept in qualitative - which was largely successful because some very far-out varieties had been "sponsored" by a very conservative brand name - my client queried about changing the varieties back to "the brand's more usual kinds" before the concept went to quantitative. While I was excited that this brand had carried these far-out varieties (the surprise stretch that gives you a hint where to grow), she'd heard "this isn't in our brand profile" and was concerned. My green light was her red light.

Consumers can tell you - through concepts that are off a brand's profile - where you can go, and maybe where you should go. If they're asking for more far-out varieties maybe they're trying to tell us something that we have to be able to hear. (Send the police on an off-site for a day or two.)

Brand-growth and brand-guardianship may have an uneasy coexistence for new products. Sometimes the surprise fits and surprise directions in concept-testing are where you need to dig to find the gold. And if the brand guardian still needs some reassurance, at least test the concept both ways - far-out, and safe-in - because most people listen to the numbers, no matter how "far-out" is the brand-new idea.

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