Helen Edwards on Branding: Time to get touchy-feely

Helen Edwards
Helen Edwards

The emotional bonding that is crucial to any brand's success cannot be built using metrics alone.

The BrandZ top 100 is one of those annual rankings that hit brand owners whether they like it or not, boosting egos here, raising eyebrows there, plunging whole departments into gloomy introspection if the news is bad.

Other surveys may pop up through the year, but this is the one marketers take seriously, such is the thoroughness of its underlying methodology. The BrandZ machine crunches through a huge database of inputs from more than 750,000 global consumers to spew out metrics of such sophistication that Millward Brown Optimor feels compelled to give them catchy, trademarked names: Brand Signature, Presence, Bonding, and the scary-sounding Voltage, with its remarkable accuracy in predicting future share.

Measurement is good, and the more accurate it is, the better, but its purpose is to guide action. What do you actually do if you're Nivea, Canon or KFC, all of which find themselves sliding down this year's rankings? Here, BrandZ offers less illumination, other than to expose the gulf between knowing and doing. More alarmingly, there's something about BrandZ that can give marketers an unrealistic sense of control.

Those finely calibrated metrics and the beguiling precision of those bar-grids can make you think you're up there in the brand cockpit, with your hands on all the right corrective levers: 'Trim the Presence, ease forward on the Bonding, and we'll climb through this market turbulence and level off at a higher-value altitude.'

The reality eventually dawns that the skills required to address brand drift have more in common with the touchy-feely awareness of the cabin crew, so you'd better get back there and muck in. Capital-B Bonding, which is a marvel of arithmetic extrapolation, can only be improved by small-b bonding, which is an all too-human muddle of emotions, proclivities and contradictions.

This necessary lurch to the other end of the skill-set has been the undoing of many a metric-focused marketer, seeking certainty where none exists. Emotional bonding calls for the judgement to make creative leaps, the courage to put authenticity before short-term commercial gain, and the wisdom to understand what connects people across vastly different cultures.

BrandZ can't help you now, with its homily-like advice such as 'the most successful brands are underpinned by trust and recommendation'.

What can help is a better approach to qualitative research, which means embracing some of the techniques that have been pioneered in the academic world.

Market-oriented ethnography is often talked about, but rarely used properly. Deprivation research, where practical, can provide the wonderful surprises to fuel the creative mind. A more recent addition is co-operative inquiry, a form of action research from the social sciences that erases the line between researcher and respondent.

All three are capable of revealing insights worthy of the name, upon which bonding, and all the rewards that go with it, can be built.

Marketers tend to swing either way. Witness the speculation over how Unilever's P&G-trained chief executive, Paul Polman, will encourage a more metric-driven marketing approach than the recently departed, brilliantly intuitive Simon Clift. Metrics vs intuition should not be a marketing debate; modern marketers need to embody both. Then they can stare fearlessly into the gulf between knowing and doing, and start to build a bridge.

Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand, where she works with some of the world's biggest brands.


- BrandZ visualises brand performance in bar-grids called Brand Signatures, based on key measures such as Presence on the bottom rung, up to the much-prized Bonding at the top. A bar extending left or right of centre is performing below or above the sector average respectively. Distinctive shapes are associated with a Brand Typology.


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