There's a terrific article in this month's Harvard Business Review entitled "Customer-Centered Brand Management." (You can purchase and download the article here for $6.)
The focus is on how brand management still trumps customer management in most large companies. A good example is Oldsmobile; the brand managers tried to keep the brand alive by repositioning it through the slogans, "This is Not Your Father's Oldsmobile" and "A New Generation of Olds." Neither campaign was effective in bringing younger users to the brand, and in 2000 GM announced that Oldsmobile would be phased out.
Why did General Motors spend so many years and so much money trying to reposition and refurbish such a tired image? Why not instead move younger buyers along a path of less resistance, toward another of the brands in GM's stable -- or even launch a wholly new brand geared to their tastes? ... We know why not, of course. It's because in large consumer-goods companies like General Motors, brands are the raison d'etre. They are the focus of decision making and the basis of accountability. They are the fiefdoms, run by the managers with the biggest jobs and the biggest budgets. And never have those managers been rewarded for shrinking their turfs.
The article goes on to promote a reinvention of brand management that puts the brand in service of the larger goal: growing customer equity. Amen to that. A brand is is an idea in the minds of its customers, and it's extremely difficult to change customers' minds. The path of least resistance is to fully understand your customers and determine if your brand can meet them where they're at. Unfortunately, most marketers try to make customers come to the brand instead of vice versa.
I think it helps to think of brands as emergent. Not things that unfold according to the master plan, but that emerge as a result of all the encounters between people who belong, with varying degrees of enthusiasm or loathing, to the community around a brand.
That doesn't mean, that there is no role at all for strategy and planning but to my mind it should shift attention towards responding rapidly to what's going on at the chalkface (I hate that word "touchpoints"). Because your brand is not created in the boardroom or marketing department, it's being created by us ordinary folks who stack your shelves or pick our cornflakes off them.
So if brands are emergent and fluid, what are the implications for the idea of brand equity? The HBR article answers:
Assigning an average value to brand equity is dangerous because it obscures the fact that brand value is idiosynchratically assigned by the customer. Managers begin to believe that the value of their brand is somehow intrinsic -- that, like a diamond in a necklace, the brand has an objective, inherent value.
Which leads to some great questions. How 'set in stone' do you believe your brand to be? How open is your company to bringing the customer into the brand management process? Do you see the world through a compartmentalized brand/business unit lens or through a customer lens?