Helen Edwards on Branding: Devoid of meaning

Helen Edwards on Branding
Helen Edwards on Branding

Marketers cannot take research into the relationship between consumers and brands at face value.

This year's Meaningful Brand Index research study, from Havas, has succeeded in gaining some frothy headlines. Even the Financial Times took the bait, with its headline 'Marketing fails to resonate with shoppers'.

The UK press release about the 50,000-consumer, 14-country study offers contentious titbits to generate more of the same: 'Only 5% of UK brands noticeably improve quality of life'; 'Most UK consumers would not care if 91% of brands ceased to exist'.

Umair Haque, director of Havas Media Labs, which conducted the survey, claims that the findings should send 'big smoke signals to boardrooms'.

He should be more concerned about smoke and mirrors closer to home. This is one of those reports that tells you more about the research industry than the subject it purports to illuminate. Long on rhetoric and short on rigour, it is a classic example of too much extrapolation from too little data.

Where to start? How about at the parochial level, with the report's 'Top 10 UK brands', as measured on the study's 'meaningful brand' metric. Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury's and Unilever take the top three slots.

There must be at least 10,000 brands for consumers to choose from in the UK. So these are the top 10 from that brand base, then? No. They are the top 10 from a preselected list probed by the researchers. How many brands on that list? Just 20.

How were those 20 brands selected? According to a Havas staffer: 'They were the ones our senior management came up with.' If you're wondering why brands such as Apple, Virgin and John Lewis didn't make the UK top 10, it's because they were never in the preselected 20.

Later, the report weighs in with the observation that, today, 'personal wellbeing is a key driver'. Of what, it doesn't specify, but my understanding is that it is talking about brand equity. The data appears to reveal nothing of the kind. In fact, the researchers prompted the issue of wellbeing by asking which brands offered it, then found that 95% were falling short.

If people are buying brands despite the fact that they perceive them not to contribute to wellbeing, it is clearly not much of a 'driver'. Later, the study appears to confirm this, with the finding that, globally, only 35% believed that Coca-Cola enhances quality of life, yet 65% registered a 'strong personal attachment' to the brand.

Now we're getting somewhere, because that discrepancy forces you to look at what people are getting from brands, beyond the product level. A whole body of more rigorous research is out there to tell you what it is: a contribution to personal identity.

For marketers curious about this subtle, pervasive and proven influence on consumption behaviour, I can point you to properly triangulated, well-conceived studies by leading consumer academics of the past 30 years.

They include Belk, with his work on 'the extended self'; Fournier, with her input on 'brand relationships'; Thompson, with his memorable phrase 'project of self', to which brands contribute; and Ritson and Elliott on 'symbolic consumption'.

There are also some illuminating and well-conducted industry studies that intelligently probe the complex relationships between consumers and brands. The Meaningful Brand Index is not among them. I, for one, would not be troubled if it ceased to exist.

Helen Edwards, PPA Columnist of the Year (Business Media), has a PhD in marketing and an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand, where she works with some of the world's biggest advertisers

30 SECONDS ON ... BRAND RANKINGS

Havas isn't the only one putting forward brand rankings based on its research. Here are some of the other big players...

Apple ranked in all three top 10s, but at positions ranging from one to nine

- BrandZ: The WPP/Millward Brown Optimor monster study is in its 13th year, measuring the value of 23,000 brands across 30 countries.

- Interbrand: Its Best Global Brands study extrapolates 'value' from a series of complex, interlocking metrics.

- Superbrands: A council of experts ranks preselected brands. The bottom 40% are then dropped and the remaining 60% voted on by members of the public in a YouGov survey. The winners are published in a glossy annual, and Marketing.

2011 RANKINGS

BrandZ               Interbrand            Superbrands
1 Apple             Coca-Cola            Mercedes-Benz
2 Google           IBM                       Rolex
3 IBM                Microsoft              BBC
4 McDonald's   Google                  Coca-Cola
5 Microsoft       GE                         Google
6 Coca-Cola     McDonald's          Microsoft
7 AT&T             Intel                      BMW
8 Marlboro        Apple                    British Airways
9 China Mobile Disney                  Apple
10 GE               HP                         Jaguar

Discussion

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus
Brand Republic Jobs

subscribe now

Latest

Oasis #springasmile digital campaign gets people doing good deeds
Coca-Cola: 'Don't approach bloggers with a fait accompli'
Tesco CMO Matt Atkinson: 'It is so important not to stereotype mothers'
McDonald's gives Ronald a new look ahead of global 'Fun times' social media push
In pictures: BrewDog opens first craft beer shop BottleDog for 'beer aficionados'
Facebook ad revenue leaps $1bn as it invests in targeting
Malteser or Maltesers? Mars takes Hershey trademark dispute to court
Apple Q2 profits top $10bn as iPhone sales soar
Lynx tells men not to leave love to fate
HBO captures awkwardness of watching sex scenes with parents
Primark to open first US stores with Boston chosen as flagship location
Marketing spend on the up but a reality check is needed before celebrating
Top 10 ads of the week: Jackpotjoy and BT Broadband fend off Kevin Bacon
Lidl beats Tesco to 10m Facebook fans
Center Parcs ad banned for encouraging parents to take kids out of school
Coca-Cola, Cadbury and Amazon named top brands for targeting youth market
Leaked document shows Nokia to be rebranded as Microsoft Mobile
Nike lays-off hardware staff in move that casts doubt on future of FuelBand
Greenpeace says save the bees or humans will die
What brands need to know about changes to VAT and online downloads in 2015
Jimmy Savile victims urged to claim compensation in new ad campaign
UKIP launches biggest  ad campaign and stirs up 'racist' accusations
Apple boss Tim Cook provides voiceover on ad touting firm's renewed green commitments
John Lewis walks consumers through its history to celebrate 150 years of business
Waitrose boosts content strategy with 'Weekend Kitchen with Waitrose' C4 tie-up
Hottest virals: Cute puppies star in Pedigree ad, plus Idris Elba and Fruyo
Amnesty International burns candles to illuminate new hope
Tom of Finland's 'homoerotic' drawings made into stamps
Toyota achieves the impossible by calming angry Roman drivers
YouTube reveals user habits to appeal to 'older' marketers