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August 3, 2015

Over a century ago, as ranchers drove their cattle across the plains to Chicago for slaughter, they used branding irons to indicate which heads of steer belonged to them. This tradition of marking a product with the name of the owner was later adopted by businesses that were looking to distinguish their products from their competitors’ during the rise of packaged goods in the 19th century. Since then, businesses of every kind have owned and used brand names, which are essentially non-generic names that identify them from among their competitors.

However, the term “brand” is no longer simply the name given to a set of products or services supplied by a specific source. “Brand” now encompasses all of the consumer perceptions and expectations associated with said set of products or services. This means that, although the company owns the mark, language and tangible assets associated with a brand, the consumer owns the brand itself. Therefore a company’s ultimate responsibility is to be the brand’s steward.

Having also evolved over the last century, brand stewardship is the careful and responsible management of the brand entrusted in one’s care. No longer the establishment of a simple set of rules created to protect the brand, with a “set it and forget it” mentality, today’s brand stewardship demands vigilance, vision, innovation and constant monitoring of the brand’s performance. The burden falls not only upon brand and product managers, but instead on the entire organization to manage and support the brand throughout its lifetime.

Stewarding Your Brand

Understanding the new power position that consumers have over brands, what was once stewardship of your brand is now essentially the careful and responsible management of your customers’ ongoing relationship with your brand. From positioning and perception to your product’s performance, your customers’ experience with your brand will ultimately determine its fate.

Stand Out in a Crowd

Establishing the correct position for your brand in the market and understanding the associated expectations of your customer will help you develop the right pricing, messaging and marketing mix. To understand all of the interrelated factors that help determine your brand’s position, you can use SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats), VRIO (valuable, rare, imitable and organized) and Porter’s Five Forces analyses to provide insight into how your company can align what the market needs, what your customers expect and what your product provides. As the market changes and new opportunities and threats arise, your company will need to continually monitor your brand’s positioning and adjust as needed.

Perception is Reality  

Your brand is made up of all of the things that your customer has assigned to it including their perception of your culture, the intangible ways your products benefit their lives and the expectations they have of how your product will perform. Do you know what these perceptions are? Do you understand the emotional connection they have to your brand so you can build upon it? Establishing the appropriate perceptions, understanding how those perceptions evolve and managing them to stay in alignment with what you are really offering will help ensure a strong, ongoing relationship.

Peak Product Performance

To be good brand stewards, you must demand that your product do what it promises; it must perform the same way to meet established expectations every time. That’s the bottom line. There are no exceptions to this rule if you want to have a strong brand. This not only holds true for the tangible and functional benefits of your product but also the intangible and emotional benefits. This is where ongoing customer research provides insight into how your product performs against customer expectations and should be a mechanism for feedback as the brand grows and evolves.

Everyone on Board

The responsibility of managing these three elements of stewardship rests with every department. Executive leadership should set the course for the brand, understand its position and be the strongest proponent for staying true to its promise. Sales and marketing need to work directly with customers to set expectations and support realistic perceptions. Operations, product development, sourcing and manufacturing all have their place in ensuring that the product continues to meet expectations. And customer service responds when the product offering doesn’t meet expectations, helping to realign and manage disappointment. This unified approach to stewardship is the best way to create, protect and grow a brand.

-Sarah Julian

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