Often, a brand is thought of as a single entity—a particular set of beliefs that distinguish it from other brands, types of interactions that are associated with a distinctive brand experience, or the total amount of value associated with it. As a practical matter, a brand also can be looked at as a coalition of different types of customers, people who hold various beliefs, have different types of experiences, and contribute varying amounts of financial value. Building the brand means assembling different groups of customers in different ways, using all of the tools available to marketers.
As marketers address more fragmented audiences and have access to more data on individual customers, this “bottom up” view of branding may line up more closely with what brand managers actually do than a “top down” view. Their daily actions are less about moving the overall market closer to the single ideal brand and more about constructing, and holding together, a portfolio of customers with different relationships to the brand.
Many marketers believe that the brand is, to a great extent, “owned” by the customers. Their aspirations for the brand come to define it. The messages and brand dimensions that the marketer would like to promote are a combination of the marketer’s own goals and strategies, and what customers have made the brand into by everyday usage.
Marketers encourage this type of customer ownership when sponsoring platforms for communication about the brand, such as branded Facebook sites and company-owned sites for customer feedback, the development of innovations or the solicitation of funding. Since the advent of consumer-generated media, it’s become even harder to argue that brands are solely a function of what marketers say that they are, compared to what consumers think they are.
Brand equity measures for products and services typically show that customers vary significantly in what they believe about a brand. For example, a financial services brand may be perceived as having good service, accessible information, reasonable fees and financial stability, but individuals may experience the brand differently on a daily basis, depending on the channels that they use (a branch, a website or an ATM), the products that they’ve purchased and their particular needs for information. These brand drivers may be important, in general, to most customers. However, individual customers may react to them in unique ways. Good service for an online customer may mean that the website is easy to use and accurate, while good service for a branch customer may mean that the staff is friendly and attentive.
The degree to which customers are attached to a brand also can vary a lot. Some exhibit high loyalty to the brand, others are susceptible to competitive appeals to switch, and many are in the middle. They may exhibit “loyal” behavior, such as staying with the brand for years, without any emotional commitment. At any moment in time, the brand will be made up of customers who exhibit these different types of characteristics. For all but the blockbuster brands, the high-loyalty customers will be a minority of the overall base. They typically will account for a disproportionate amount of the brand’s revenue and profit. In many instances, the “middle of the road” customers are the majority.
The “bottom up” customer view of brands is much more relevant to brand building today due to the fragmentation of media and of markets.
Treating all customers the same way, with the same messages, doesn’t use resources effectively.
The customer portfolio is not a monolithic group with a single connection to the brand.
Written by Gordon Wyner, partner at Millward Brown Analytics,is the contributing editor for Marketing News’ Marketing Management thought leadership content.