You Don’t Control Your Brand (Actually, You Never Did)

“You no longer control your company’s brand. Your customers do.”

That’s the trendy new phrase traveling around the marketing circuit these days. Speakers at conferences and consultants on blogs take pleasure is repeating this for its paradoxical shock value. “You don’t control your brand.” Sounds scary. Brrrr!

Social media zealots like to use this expression to illustrate the idea that new online channels have democratized marketing. New media marketing is, they say, more egalitarian, more social. While true in many ways, what they really mean is that customers just have a bigger voice than they had before, mostly thanks to social media.

But to say “you don’t control your brand, someone else does” is nonsense. While on the surface this kind of expression may seem like a pithy insight regarding the state of marketing today, it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about what a brand really is and how brands are built.

First off, you never controlled your brand.

Actually, no one did.

You see a brand isn’t something that can be “controlled.” Why? Because brands are all about people’s emotions and perceptions. Your brand is how people feel about your organization. It’s their gut reaction. No matter what you do and no matter how hard you try, you simply cannot control what someone else feels or believes. You can try to shape people’s perceptions in specific directions. You can influence people’s reaction to something. But no one has the ability to control anyone’s feelings about anything. Unless you’re a fascist or have some sort of mind control device, it’s pretty much out of the question.

Back to what a brand is. For consumers, a brand represents a form of mental shorthand. Consumers create brands for everything: for companies they see advertised, for products they use, for celebrities they admire (or despise), for places they vacation, etc. Consumers can — and do! — create brands for basically every noun in the English language, whether that be people, places or things. Consumers create these brands to summarize their emotions, their feelings. It’s a mental scorecard for their overall impressions. Do they like the brand? What kind of experience can they trust the brand to deliver?

Some people like Nike shoes. Other people think Nike is the embodiment of corporate evil. Can Nike control what people think? No. But can Nike influence how people feel about them? Yes, absolutely. There is a myriad of things Nike can — and does — to help consumers form positive impressions. They can make high-quality shoes, for starters. They can choose to manufacture their products in ethical ways that meet fair-trade standards. They can use social media to build online communities for runners. They can run ads starring celebrity spokespeople like Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods to draw brand analogies about competitive empowerment. Of course, there are plenty of people who think Kobe is (at best) a homophobic misogynist, and that Tiger is a no-good philanderer. Which illustrates another definition of “brand”:

Your brand is your reputation.

Almost everywhere you hear the word “brand” — in articles, speeches and in conversation — you can swap in the word “reputation.” Simply put, your brand is “what you’re known for.” And a reputation is something one earns through their actions — not their words, promises and good intentions. Ultimately, it boils down to what you do and deliver, which is something you are very much in control of.

So if your brand is your reputation, then “branding” is the act of creating and managing your reputation. You can’t control who likes you and why, but you can certainly make an effort to steer the right people in the right direction.

For instance, if Nike doesn’t want its reputation associated with greed and exploitation, then they should avoid manufacturing their gear in sweatshops. If they don’t want to be perceived negatively, then they probably shouldn’t screw people. (Tiger and Kobe get the same advice, but in a different context.)

If you want to be seen as fun and easy-going, there are things you can do to encourage those perceptions. For starters, you could stop being dull and stuffy. If you want to position yourself as hip, cool and technologically savvy, you can do that too. You may not be able to control your brand, but between your people, products, promotions, internal culture, touchpoints, staff, locations, size/style of branches, etc., you certainly have no shortage of tools at your disposal.

Key Takeaways

“Branding” is what you want people to think about your organization (your intent). The “brand” is how people actually feel about it (their reaction to what you do).

A healthy way to view brand development is to see it as an on-going, two-way, often invisible dialogue between companies and consumers. A company can introduce products and launch ad campaigns as they try to build a specific image with a certain audience. These consumers respond and react — sometimes very vocally, sometimes more quietly. The company then refines and adapts its strategy, products and messages. This process of branding should be a continual feedback loop.

There is another popular branding expression, similar to the one that started this article:

“The brand isn’t what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.”

That’s true, because your brand is based on their feelings. That doesn’t mean they “control” the brand though.

But this too is also true: You control your brand’s strategy, and have many weapons in your marketing arsenal you can use to shape, guide and influence people’s perceptions. The tools of branding may have changed, but not the general rules.

A small handful of organizations approach branding with deliberate conviction. They know who they are and what they stand for. They use a combination of focus, discipline and execution to create differentiated experiences that shape consumer feelings in positive, proactive and strategic ways. These are the brands we all know and love.

Most organizations, however, have a scattered, inconsistent, willy-nilly approach to their brand. Others don’t have a clue at all. These are the weak brands no one cares about.

Which one are you?

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