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Concepts of Brand Identity and Positioning

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A brand is not the name of a product. It is the vision that drives the creation of products and services under that name. That vision, the key belief of the brands and its core values is called identity. It drives vibrant brands able to create advocates, a real cult and loyalty.

Modern competition calls for two essential tools of brand management: ‘brand identity', specifying the facets of brands' uniqueness and value, and ‘brand positioning', the main difference creating preference in a specific market at a specific time for its products.

For existing brands, identity is the source of brand positioning. Brand positioning specifies the angle used by the products of that brand to attack a market in order to grow their market share at the expense of competition.

Defining what a brand is made of helps answer many questions that are asked every day, such as: Can the brand sponsor such and such event or sport? Does the advertising campaign suit the brand? Is the opportunity for launching a new product inside the brand's boundaries or outside? How can the brand change its communication style, yet remain true to itself? How can decision making in communications be decentralised regionally or internationally, without jeopardising brand congruence? All such decisions pose the problem of brand identity and definition - which are essential prerequisites for efficient brand management.

Brand identity: a necessary concept

Like the ideas of brand vision and purpose, the concept of brand identity is recent. It started in Europe (Kapferer, 1986).The perception of its paramount importance has slowly gained worldwide recognition; in the most widely read American book on brand equity (Aaker, 1991), the word ‘identity' is in fact totally absent, as is the concept.

Today, most advanced marketing companies have specified the identity of their brand through proprietary models such as ‘brand key' (Unilever), ‘footprint' (Johnson & Johnson), ‘bulls' eyes' and ‘brand stewardship', which organise in a specific form a list of concepts related to brand identity. However, they are rather checklists. Is identity a sheer linguistic novelty, or is it essential to understanding what brands are?

What is identity?

To appreciate the meaning of this significant concept in brand management, we shall begin by considering the many ways in which the word is used today.

For example, we speak of ‘identity cards' - a personal, non-transferable document that tells in a few words who we are, what our name is and what distinguishable features we have that can be instantly recognised. We also hear of ‘identity of opinion' between several people, meaning that they have an identical point of view. In terms of communication, this second interpretation of the word suggests brand identity is the common element sending a single message amid the wide variety of its products, actions and communications. This is important since the more the brand expands and diversifies, the more customers are inclined to feel that they are, in fact, dealing with several different brands rather than a single one. If products and communication go their separate ways, how can customers possibly perceive these different routes as converging towards a common vision and brand?

Speaking of identical points of view also raises the question of permanence and continuity. As civil status and physical appearance change, identity cards get updated, yet the fingerprint of their holders always remains the same. The identity concept questions how time will affect the unique and permanent quality of the sender, the brand or the retailer. In this respect, psychologists speak of the ‘identity crisis' which adolescents often go through. When their identity structure is still weak, teenagers tend to move from one role model to another.

These constant shifts create a gap and force the basic question: ‘What is the real me?'

Finally, in studies on social groups or minorities, we often speak of ‘cultural identity'. In seeking an identity, they are in fact seeking a pivotal basis on which to hinge not only their inherent difference but also their membership of a specific cultural entity. Brand identity may be a recent notion, but many researchers have already delved into the organisational identity of companies (Schwebig, 1988; Moingeon and Soenen, 2003).

There, the simplest verbal expression of identity often consists in saying: ‘Oh, yes, I see, but it's not the same in our company!' In other words, corporate identity is what helps an organisation, or a part of it, feel that it truly exists and that it is a coherent and unique being, with a history and a place of its own, different from others.

From these various meanings, we can infer that having an identity means being your true self, driven by a personal goal that is both different from others' and resistant to change. Thus, brand identity will be clearly defined once the following questions are answered:

  • What is the brand's particular vision and aim?
  • What makes it different?
  • What need is the brand fulfilling?
  • What is its permanent nature?
  • What are its value or values?
  • What is its field of competence? Of legitimacy?
  • What are the signs which make the brand recognisable?

These questions could indeed constitute the brand's charter. This type of official document would help better brand management in the medium term, both in terms of form and content, and so better address future communication and extension issues. Communication tools such as the copy strategy are essentially linked to advertising campaigns, and so are only committed to the short term. There must be specific guidelines to ensure that there is indeed only one brand forming a solid and coherent entity.

Brand identity and graphic identity charters

Many readers will make the point that their firms already make use of graphic identity ‘bibles', either for corporate or specific brand purposes. We do indeed find many graphic identity charters, books of standards and visual identity guides. Urged on by graphic identity agencies, companies have rightly sought to harmonise the messages conveyed by their brands. Such charters therefore define the norms for visual recognition of the brand, ie the brand's colours, graphic design and type of print.

Although this may be a necessary first step, it isn't the be all and end all. Moreover, it puts the cart before the horse. What really matters is the key message that we want to communicate. Formal aspects, outward appearance and overall looks result from the brand's core substance and intrinsic identity. Choosing symbols requires a clear definition of what the brand means. However, while graphic manuals are quite easy to find nowadays, explicit definitions of brand identity per se are still very rare. Yet, the essential questions above (ie the nature of the identity to be conveyed) must be properly answered before we begin discussing and defining what the communication means and what the codes of outward recognition should be. The brand's deepest values must be reflected in the external signs of recognition, and these must be apparent at first glance. The family resemblance between the various models of BMW conveys a strong identity, yet it is not the identity. This brand's identity and essence can actually be defined by addressing the issue of its difference, its permanence, its value and its personal view on automobiles.

Many firms have unnecessarily constrained their brand because they formulated a graphic charter before defining their identity. Not knowing who they really are, they merely perpetuate purely formal codes by, for example, using a certain photographic style that may not be the most suitable. Thus Nina Ricci's identity did not necessarily relate to the company's systematic adherence to English photographer David Hamilton's style.

Knowing brand identity paradoxically gives extra freedom of expression, since it emphasises the pre-eminence of substance over strictly formal features. Brand identity defines what must stay and what is free to change.

Brands are living systems. They must have degrees of freedom to match modern market diversity.

Identity: a contemporary concept

That a new concept - identity - has emerged in the field of management, already well versed in brand image and positioning, is really no great surprise. Today's problems are more complex than those of 10 or 20 years ago and so there is now a need for more refined concepts that allow a closer connection with reality.

First of all, we cannot overemphasise the fact that we are currently living in a society saturated in communications. Everybody wants to communicate these days. If needed, proof is available: there have been huge increases in advertising budgets, not only in the major media but also in the growing number of professional magazines. It has become very difficult to survive in the hurly-burly thus created, let alone to thrive and successfully convey one's identity. For communication means two things: sending out messages and making sure that they are received. Communicating nowadays is no longer just a technique, it is a feat in itself.

The second factor explaining the urgent need to understand brand identity is the pressure constantly put on brands. We have now entered an age of marketing similarities. When a brand innovates, it creates a new standard. The other brands must then catch up if they want to stay in the race, hence the increasing number of ‘me-too' products with similar attributes, not to mention the copies produced by distributors. Regulations also cause similarities to spread. Bank operations, for example, have become so much alike that banks are now unable to fully express their individuality and identity. Market research also generates herdism within a given sector. As all companies base themselves on the same life-style studies, the conclusions they reach are bound to be similar as are the products and advertising campaigns they launch, in which sometimes even the same words are used.

Finally, technology is responsible for growing similarity. Why do cars increasingly look alike, in spite of their different makes? Because car makers are all equally concerned about fluidity, inner car space constraints, motorisation and economy, and these problems cannot be solved in all that many different ways. Moreover, when the models of four car brands (Audi, Volkswagen, Seat and Skoda) share many identical parts (eg chassis, engine, gearbox), for either productivity or competitiveness purposes, it is mainly brand identity, along with, to a lesser extent, what's left of each car, which will distinguish the makes from one another.

Diversification calls for knowing the brand's identity. Brands launch new products, penetrate new markets and reach new targets. This may cause both fragmented communications and patchwork images. Though we are still able to discern bits and pieces of the brand here and there, we are certainly unable to perceive its global and coherent identity.

Why speak of identity rather than image?

What does the notion of identity have to offer that the image of a brand or a company or a retailer doesn't have? After all, firms spend large amounts of money measuring image.

Brand image is on the receiver's side. Image research focuses on the way in which certain groups perceive a product, a brand, a politician, a company or a country. The image refers to the way in which these groups decode all of the signals emanating from the products, services and communication covered by the brand.

Identity is on the sender's side. The purpose, in this case, is to specify the brand's meaning, aim and self-image. Image is both the result and interpretation thereof. In terms of brand management, identity precedes image.

Before projecting an image to the public, we must know exactly what we want to project. Before it is received, we must know what to send and how to send it. As shown in Figure 7.1, an image is a synthesis made by the public of all the various brand messages, eg brand name, visual symbols, products, advertisements, sponsoring, patronage, articles.

An image results from decoding a message, extracting meaning, interpreting signs.

Where do all these signs come from? There are two possible sources: brand identity of course, but also extraneous factors (‘noise') that speak in the brand's name and thus produce meaning, however disconnected they may actually be from it. What are these extraneous factors?

First, there are companies that choose to imitate competitors, as they have no clear idea of what their own brand identity is. They focus on their competitors and imitate their marketing communication.

Second, there are companies that are obsessed with the willingness to build an appealing image that will be favourably perceived by all. So they focus on meeting every one of the public's expectations. That is how the brand gets caught in the game of always having to please the consumer and ends up surfing on the changing waves of social and cultural fads. Yesterday, brands were into glamour, today, they are into ‘cocooning'; so what's next? The brand can appear opportunistic and popularity seeking, and thus devoid of any meaningful substance. It becomes a mere façade, a meaningless cosmetic camouflage.

The third source of ‘noise' is that of fantasised identity: the brand as one would ideally like to see it, but not as it actually is. As a result, we notice, albeit too late, that the advertisements do not help people remember the brand because they are either too remotely connected to it or so radically disconnected from it that they cause perplexity or rejection.

Since brand identity has now been recognised as the prevailing concept, these three potential communication glitches can be prevented.

The identity concept thus serves to emphasise the fact that, with time, brands do eventually gain their independence and their own meaning, even though they may start out as mere product names. As living memories of past products and advertisements, brands do not simply fade away: they define their own area of competence, potential and legitimacy.

Yet they also know when to stay out of other areas. We cannot expect a brand to be anything other than itself.

Obviously, brands should not curl up in a shell and cut themselves off from the public and from market evolutions. However, an obsession with image can lead them to capitalise too much on appearance and not enough on essence.

Identity and positioning

It is also common to distinguish brands according to their positioning. Positioning a brand means emphasising the distinctive characteristics that make it different from its competitors and appealing to the public. It results from an analytical process based on the four following questions:

  • A brand for what benefit? This refers to the brand promise and consumer benefit aspect: Orangina has real orange pulp, The Body Shop is environment friendly, Twix gets rid of hunger, Volkswagen is reliable.
  • A brand for whom? This refers to the target aspect. For a long time, Schweppes was the drink of the refined, Snapple the soft drink for adults, Tango or Yoohoo the drink for teenagers.
  • Reason? This refers to the elements, factual or subjective, that support the claimed benefit.
  • A brand against whom? In today's competitive context, this question defines the main competitor(s), ie those whose clientele we think we can partly capture. Tuborg and other expensive imported beers thus also compete against whisky, gin and vodka.

Positioning is a crucial concept (Figure 7.2). It reminds us that all consumer choices are made on the basis of comparison. Thus, a product will only be considered if it is clearly part of a selection process. Hence the four questions that help position the new product or brand and make its contribution immediately obvious to the customer. Positioning is a two-stage process:

  • First, indicate to what ‘competitive set' the brand should be associated and compared.
  • Second, indicate what the brand's essential difference and raison d'être is in comparison to the other products and brands of that set.

Choosing the competitive set is essential. While this may be quite easy to do for a new toothpaste, it is not so for very original and unique products. The Gaines burger launched by the Gaines company, for instance, was a new dog food, a semi-dehydrated product presented as red ground meat in a round shape like a hamburger. Unlike normal canned pet foods, moreover, it did not need to be refrigerated, nor did it exude that normal open-can smell.

Given these characteristics, the product could be positioned in several different ways, for example by:

  • Attacking the canned pet food market by appealing to well-to-do dog owners. The gist of the message would then be ‘the can without the can', in other words, the benefits of meat without its inconveniences (smell, freshness constraints, etc).
  • Attacking the dehydrated pet food segment (dried pellets) by offering a product that would help the owner not to feel guilty for not giving meat to the dog on the basis that it is just not practical. The fresh-ground, round look could justify this positioning.
  • Targeting owners who feed leftovers to their dogs by presenting Gaines as a complete, nutritious supplement (and no longer as a main meal as in the two former strategies).
  • Targeting all dog owners by presenting this product as a nutritious treat, a kind of doggy Mars bar.

The choice between these alternative strategies was made by assessing each one against certain measurable criteria (Table 7.1).

The firm ended up choosing the first positioning and launched this product as the ‘Gaines burger'.

What does the identity concept add to that of positioning? Why do we even need another concept? In the first place, because positioning focuses more on the product itself. What then does positioning mean in the case of a multiproduct brand? How can these four questions on positioning be answered if we are not focusing on one particular product category? We know how to position the various Scotchbrite scrubbing pads as well as the

Scotch videotapes, but what does the positioning concept mean for the Scotch brand as a whole, not to mention the 3M corporate brand? This is precisely where the concept of brand identity comes in handy.

Second, positioning does not reveal all the brand's richness of meaning nor reflect all of its potential. The brand is restricted once reduced to four questions. Positioning does not help fully differentiate Coca-Cola from Pepsi-Cola. The four positioning questions thus fail to encapsulate such nuances. They do not allow us to fully explore the identity and singularity of the brand. Worse still, positioning allows communication to be entirely dictated by creative whims and current fads. Positioning does not say a word about communication style, form or spirit.

This is a major deficiency since brands have the gift of speech: they state both the objective and subjective qualities of a given product. The speech they deliver - in these days of multimedia supremacy - is made of words, of course, but even more of pictures, sounds, colours, movement and style. Positioning controls the words only, leaving the rest up to the unpredictable outcome of creative hunches and pretests. Yet brand language should never result from creativity only. It expresses the brand's personality and values.

Creative hunches are only useful if they are consistent with the brand's legitimate territory. Furthermore, though pretest evaluations are needed to verify that the brand's message is well received, the public should not be allowed to dictate brand language: its style needs to be found within itself. Brand uniqueness often tends to get eroded by consumer expectations and thus starts regressing to a level at which it risks losing its identity.

Table 7.1 How to evaluate and choose a brand positioning

  • Are the product's current looks and ingredients compatible with this positioning?
  • How strong is the assumed consumer motivation behind this positioning? (what insight?)
  • What size of market is involved by such a positioning?
  • Is this positioning credible?
  • Does it capitalise on a competitor's actual or latent durable weakness?
  • What financial means are required by such a positioning?
  • Is this positioning specific and distinctive?
  • Is this a sustainable positioning which cannot be imitated by competitors?
  • Does this positioning leave any possibility for an alternative solution in case of failure?
  • Does this positioning justify a price premium?
  • Is there a growth potential under this positioning?

A brand's message is the outward expression of the brand's inner substance. Thus we can no longer dissociate brand substance from brand style, ie from its verbal, visual and musical attributes. Brand identity provides the framework for overall brand coherence. It is a concept that serves to offset the limitations of positioning and to monitor the means of expression, the unity and durability of a brand.

Why brands need identity and positioning

A brand's positioning is a key concept in its management. It is based on one fundamental principle: all choices are comparative. Remember that identity expresses the brand's tangible and intangible characteristics - everything that makes the brand what it is, and without which it would be something different. Identity draws upon the brand's roots and heritage - everything that gives it its unique authority and legitimacy within a realm of precise values and benefits. Positioning is competitive: when it comes to brands, customers make a choice, but with products, they make a comparison. This raises two questions. First, what do they compare it with? For this, we need to look at the field of competition: what area do we want to be considered as part of? Second, what are we offering the customer as a key decision-making factor?

A brand that does not position itself leaves these two questions unanswered. It is a mistake to suppose that customers will find answers themselves: there are too many choices available today for customers to make the effort to work out what makes a particular brand specific. Communicating this information is the responsibility of the brand. Remember, products increase customer choice; brands simplify it. This is why a brand that does not want to stand for something stands for nothing.

The aim of positioning is to identify, and take possession of, a strong purchasing rationale that gives us a real or perceived advantage. It implies a desire to take up a long-term position and defend it. Positioning is competition-oriented: it specifies the best way to attack competitors' market share. It may change through time: one grows by expanding the field of competition. Identity is more stable and long-lasting, for it is tied to the brand roots and fixed parameters. Thus Coke's positioning was ‘the original' as long as it competed against other colas. To grow the business, it now competes against all soft drinks: its positioning is ‘the most refreshing bond between people of the world', whereas its identity remains ‘the symbol of America, the essence of the American way of life'.

How is positioning achieved? The standard positioning formula is as follows:

For … (definition of target market) Brand X is … (definition of frame of reference and subjective category) Which gives the most … (promise or consumer benefit) Because of … (reason to believe).

Let us look at these points in detail. The target specifies the nature and psycho-logical or sociological profile of the individuals to be influenced, that is, buyers or potential consumers.

The frame of reference is the subjective definition of the category, which will specify the nature of the competition. What other brands or products effectively serve the same purpose? This is a strategic decision: it marks out the ‘field of battle'. It must not under any circumstances be confused with the objective description of the product or category. For example, there is no real rum market in the UK, yet Bacardi is very popular. This is because it is perfectly possible to drink Bacardi without realising that it is a rum: it is the party mixer par excellence.

Another example illustrates the strategic importance of defining the frame of reference. Objectively speaking, Perrier is fizzy mineral water. Subjectively, however, it is also a drink for adults. Seen in the light of this field of reference, it acquires its strongest competitive advantage: a slight natural quirkiness. As we can see, the choice of the field of competition should be informed by the strategic value of that field: how big, how fast growing, how profitable? But it also lends the brand a competitive advantage through its identity and potential. Perceived as water for the table, Perrier has no significant competitive advantage over other fizzy mineral waters, even though this market is a very large one. However, when viewed in relation to a field of competition defined as ‘drinks for adults', Perrier becomes competitive again: it has strong differentiating advantages. What are its competitors? They include alcoholic drinks, Diet Coke, Schweppes and tomato juice.

The third point specifies the aspect of difference which creates the preference and the choice of a decisive competitive advantage: it may be expressed in terms of a promise (for instance, Volvo is the strongest of all cars) or a benefit (such as, Volvo is the ‘safety' brand).

The fourth point reinforces the promise or benefit, and is known as the ‘reason to believe'. For example, in the case of the Dove brand, which promises to be the most moisturising, the reason is that all of its products contain 25 per cent of moisturising cream.

Positioning is a necessary concept, first because all choices are comparative, and so it makes sense to start off by stating the area in which we are strongest; and second because in marketing, perception is reality. Positioning is a concept which starts with customers, by putting ourselves in their place: faced with a plethora of brands, are consumers able to identify the strong point of each, the factor that distinguishes it from the rest? This is why, ideally, a customer should be capable of paraphrasing a brand's positioning: ‘Only Brand X will do this for me, because it has, or it is …'

No instrument is entirely neutral. The above formula was created by companies such as Kraft-General Foods, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever. It is designed for businesses that base competitive advantage on their products,

and works perfectly for the l'Oréal Group which, with its 2,500 researchers worldwide, only ever launches new products if they are of demonstrably superior performance. This fact is then promoted through advertising.

There are cases where the brand makes no promise, or where the benefit it brings could sound trivial. For example, how would you define the positioning of a perfume such as Obsession by Calvin Klein in a way that clearly represented its true nature and originality? It would be wrong to claim that Obsession makes any specific promise to its customers, or that they will obtain any particular benefit from the product apart from feeling good (a property which is common to all perfumes). In reality, Obsession's attractiveness stems from its imagery, the imaginary world of subversive androgyny which it embodies. In the same way, Mugler appeals to young people through its inherently neofuturistic world, and Chanel stands for timeless elegance.

What actually sells these perfumes is the satisfaction derived from participating in the symbolic world of the brand. The same is true of alcohol and spirits: Jack Daniel's is selling a symbolic participation in an eternal, authentic untamed America. To say that Jack Daniel's is selling the satisfaction of being the finest choice would be a mere commonplace, like the tired old cliché that customers are satisfied at having made a choice that set them apart from the masses (a classic benefit stated by small brands attempting to emphasise their advantage over large ones).

Faced with this conceptual dilemma, there are three possible approaches. The first of these is to define positioning as the sum of every point that differentiates the brand. This has been Unilever's approach: the 60page mini-opus known as the Brand Key, which explains how to define a brand across the entire world, starts with the phrase: ‘Brand Key builds on and replaces the brand positioning statement …'. There are eight headings to Brand Key:

1. The competitive environment. 2. The target. 3. The consumer insight on which the brand is based. 4. The benefits brought by the brand. 5. Brand values and personality. 6. The reasons to believe. 7. The discriminator (single most compelling reason to choose). 8. The brand essence.

Fundamentally, therefore, this collection forms the positioning of a brand. However, the concept that most closely resembles positioning in the strict sense of the word is referred to here as the ‘discriminator'. McDonald's also adopts a similar reasoning (see Figure 7.3). Larry Light defends the idea that positioning is defined when this chain of means-ends is completed (this is a parallel concept to the ‘ladder' - moving from the tangible to the intangible):

My position is that two tools are needed to manage the brand. One defines the brand's identity, while the other is competitive and specifies the competitive proposition made at any given time in any given market. This is the brand's unique compelling competitive proposition (UCCP). Thus the tool called ‘brand platform' will comprise, first, the ‘brand identity', that is to say, brand uniqueness and singularity throughout the world and whatever the product. Brand identity has six facets, and is therefore larger than the mere positioning. It is represented by the identity prism. At its centre one finds the brand essence, the central value it symbolises.

Second, the brand platform comprises ‘brand positioning': choosing a market means choosing a specific angle to attack it. Brand positioning must be based on a customer insight relevant to this market. Brand positioning exploits one of the brand identity facets. Positioning can be summed up in four key questions: for whom, why, when and against whom? It can be represented in the form of a diamond, the ‘positioning diamond' (see Figure 7.2, page 176).

In positioning, the brand/product makes a proposition, plus (necessarily) a promise. The proposition may additionally be supported by a ‘reason to believe', but this is not essential. Marlboro presents its smoker as a man - a real man, symbolised by the untamed cowboy of the Wild West. No support is offered for this proposition; no proof is necessary. It is true because the brand says so. And the more often it is repeated, the more credible it becomes.

In this way the brand's proposition, which forms the basis of the chosen positioning at a given moment in a particular market, may be fuelled by various ‘edges' contained within the brand's identity:

  • a differentiating attribute (25 per cent moisturising cream in Dove, the smoothness and bite of Mars bars, the bubbles of Perrier);
  • an objective benefit: an iMac is user friendly, Dell offers unbeatable value for money;
  • a subjective benefit: you feel secure with IBM;
  • an aspect of the brand's personality: the mystery of the Bacardi bat, Jack Daniel's is macho, Axe/Lynx is cool;
  • the realm of the imaginary, of imagery and meaning (the American Wild West for Marlboro, Old New England for Ralph Lauren);
  • a reflection of a consumer type: successful people for Amex;
  • ‘deep' values (Nike's sports mentality, Nestlé's maternal love), or even a mission (The Body Shop, Virgin and so on).

A few introductory remarks should be made at this juncture.

What is the connection between identity, essence and positioning? Clearly, for existing brands, positioning derives from identity. But it exploits a specific aspect of identity at a given point in time in a given market and against a precise set of competitors. Consequently, at the level of global brands, a unified identity can generate various angles of attack for different markets. For example, Bacardi favours its Carta Blanca white rum product in Northern Europe - a market that consumes very little rum - and thus places its confidence in the party spirit that surrounds the Cuba Libre cocktail drink. However, in its Southern European market it chiefly promotes its mature brown rums, with an almost gastronomic promise.

For 50 years, Mars was little more than a chocolate bar. The essence of Mars is energy; its positioning is as a meal substitute in the UK and as a revitalising snack in Europe. It is this degree of freedom between identity, essence and positioning that enables a brand to change over time while still remaining itself. Thus, over time (40 years), Evian has changed its slogan and baseline on several occasions, symbolising a change in its angle of market attack: for indeed, the market itself has changed. It has become increasingly saturated with competing brands, the original consumers have aged, and low-cost brands have carved out a significant share.

On each occasion, these changes have led to a re-examination of the most compelling advantage, the angle of market attack. There has thus been a shift from ‘water for babies' to the purest of waters, water from the Alps, well balanced water, and now the water of youth (this time round, the campaign is worldwide). However, each positioning has remained true to the essence of the Evian brand, which is more than any other water distinguished by its origins, its composition, its first campaign (babies) and so on. Evian is about life itself.

What is the connection between the positioning of the brand and the positioning of its products? It is true that today's brands are increasingly based on multiple products: Dove was born as a soap in the United States, but now encompasses shampoos, shower gels, moisturising cream, deodorants and so on. The essence of Dove is ‘Femininity restored'.

But Dove is being launched in a market via one or more products that have to fight for their own space amid a host of competitors: hence when Dove soap was launched, its positioning was: ‘Dove is a premium beauty bar for the mature women, worried about their skin, which won't dry your skin like soap because it contains one quarter moisturising cream.'

This example is a good illustration of how the product's positioning promotes a consumer attribute or benefit, while the parent brand specifies the ‘terminal value' that this attribute and benefit enables the consumer to reach. When a brand consists of multiple products, care should be taken to ensure that their respective positioning converges on attaining the same core value (that of the parent brand). If this is not the case, either the product requires repositioning, or the question should be asked whether it is part of the right brand at all.

Table 7.2 illustrates the link between the essence of the l'Oréal Paris parent brand and the positioning of its products such as Elsève and Studio Line.

The six facets of brand identity

In order to become ‘passion brands', or ‘love marks', brands must not be hollow, but have a deep inner inspiration. They must also have character, their own beliefs, and as a result help consumers in their life, and also in discovering their own identity.

What is brand identity made of? Many ad hoc lists have been proposed in the brand literature, with varying items. One of the sources of this diversity is their lack of theoretical basis. By being too analytical, some of these tools get their users into a muddle.

In fact, leaving the classical stimulus- response paradigm, modern brand communication theory reminds us that when one communicates, one builds representations of who speaks (source re-presentation), of who is the addressee (recipient re-presentation), and what specific relationship the communication builds between them.

This is the constructivist school of theorising about communications. Since brands speak about the product, and are perceived as sources of products, services and satisfactions, communication theory is directly relevant. As such it reminds us that brand identity has six facets. We call this the ‘brand identity prism'.

The identity prism

Brand identity should be represented by a hexagonal prism (see Figure 7.4):

1. A brand, first of all, has physical specificities and qualities - its ‘physique'. It is made of a combination of either salient objective features (which immediately come to mind when the brand is quoted in a survey) or emerging ones.

Physique is both the brand's backbone and its tangible added value. If the brand is a flower, its physique is the stem. Without the stem, the flower dies: it is the flower's objective and tangible basis. This is how branding traditionally works: focusing on know-how and classic positioning, relying on certain key product and brand attributes and benefits.

Physical appearance is important but it is not all. Nevertheless, the first step in developing a brand is to define its physical aspect: What is it concretely? What does it do? What does it look like? The physical facet also comprises the brand's prototype: the flagship product that is representative of the brand's qualities.

That is why the small round bottle is so important each time Orangina is launched in a new country. The bottle used today is the same as it has always been. From the beginning, it has served to position Orangina, thanks to its unique shape and to the orange pulp that we can actually see. Only later was it marketed in standard family-size PET bottles and in cans. In this respect, it is also quite significant that there used to be a picture of the famous Coca-Cola bottle on all Coke cans. It is true that modern packaging tends to standardise brands, making them all clones of one another. Thus, in using the image of its traditional bottle, Coca-Cola aims to remind us of its roots.

There are several delicate issues regarding Coke's physical facet. For example, is the dark colour part of its identity? It is certainly a key contributor to the mystery of the brand. If it belongs to the brand's kernel, key identity traits, then there could never be any such thing as colourless Crystal Coke, even though there is such a thing as Crystal Pepsi. Likewise, would grapefruit Orangina in the classic round bottle be possible?

Many brands have problems with their physical facet because their functional added value is weak. Even an image-based brand must deliver material benefits. Brands are two-legged value-adding systems.

2. A brand has a personality. By communicating, it gradually builds up character. The way in which it speaks of its products or services shows what kind of person it would be if it were human.

‘Brand personality' has been the main focus of brand advertising since 1970.

Numerous American agencies have made it a prerequisite for any type of communication. Ted Bates had to come up with a new USP (now, the unique selling personality), while Grey had to define brand personality. This explains why the idea of having a famous character represent the brand has become so widespread. The easiest way of creating instant personality is to give the brand a spokesperson or a figurehead, whether real or symbolic. Pepsi-Cola often uses this method, as do all perfume or ready-to-wear brands.

In the prism, brand identity is the personality facet of the source. It should not be confused with the customer reflected image, which is a portrayal of the ideal receiver.

Thus, brand personality is described and measured by those human personality traits that are relevant for brands (see page 110 for an application). Since 1996, academic research has focused on brand personality, after Aaker's (1995) creation of a so-called ‘brand personality scale'. However, despite its wide diffusion among scholars, this scale does not measure brand personality in the strict sense, but a number of intangible and tangible dimensions that are more or less related to it, and that correspond in fact to other facets of a brand's identity (Azoulay and Kapferer, 2003). Recent empirical research (Romaniuk and Ehrenberg, 2003) has corroborated this. For instance, computers or electronic equipment were the categories most associated with the ‘up to date' trait, as ice creams were associated with the ‘sensuous' trait, and energiser drinks with ‘energising'. These data demonstrate that this scale is not measuring personality: a lot of its traits instead measure a physical facet of the brand, while some others relate to the cultural facet of the identity prism, thus creating conceptual confusion in the field. This is because Aaker's conceptualisation of brand personality is inherited from the old habit of advertising agencies of describing as ‘brand personality' in their creative briefing and copy strategy everything that was not related to the product's tangible benefits.

3. A brand is a culture. There is no cult brand without a brand culture. A brand should have its own culture, from which every product derives. The product is not only a concrete representation of this culture, but also a means of communication. Here culture means the set of values feeding the brand's inspiration. It is the source of the brand's aspirational power. The cultural facet refers to the basic principles governing the brand in its outward signs (products and communication). This essential aspect is at the core of the brand. Apple was the product of Californian culture in the sense that this state will forever symbolise the new frontier. Apple was not interested in expanding geographically but in changing society, unlike the brands of Boston and the East Coast.

Even in the absence of Apple's founders, everything carried on as if Apple still had some revolutionary plan to offer to companies and to humankind. This is a source of inspiration for Apple's original products and services.

Major brands are certainly driven by a culture but, in turn, they also convey this culture (eg Benetton, Coca-Cola, IBM, etc). The cultural facet is the key to understanding the difference between Adidas, Nike and Reebok or between American Express and Visa. In focusing too heavily on brand personality, research and advertising have neglected this essential facet (we will also notice this with retailers: the leading ones are those who not only have a personality, but also a culture). Mercedes embodies German values: order prevails. Even at 260 km/h, a Mercedes has perfect handling. Even though the surrounding landscape may be whizzing by, the Mercedes remains stable and unperturbed. Symmetry governs this brand: the threebox bodywork is a strong physical characteristic of Mercedes. The brand symbol set at the nose-tip of every Mercedes further epitomises this spirit of order.

Countries of origin are also great cultural reservoirs for brands: Coca-Cola stands for America, as does IBM, Nike or Levi's. In other cases, however, they are ignored: thus, Mars is a worldwide brand like Shell. Canon and Technics deny their Japanese origin whereas Mitsubishi, Toyota and Nissan emphasise it. One of the bonuses for Evian exports is that it actually represents a part of French culture. However, this is not the only factor adding to their value. When Americans buy Evian, they are not just paying for the cultural facet but for all six aspects of these brands, starting with the basic consumer benefit: Evian quenches thirst and promotes health. American style food is McCain's cultural and symbolic reference; for Jack Daniel's, it is the authentic untamed America.

Culture is what links the brand to the firm, especially when the two bear the same name. Because of its culture, Nestlé has not succeeded in conveying the image of a fun and enjoyable food brand. Indeed, its image cannot be fully dissociated from that of the corporation, which is overall perceived as austere and puritan. The degree of freedom of a brand is often reduced by the corporate culture, of which it becomes the most visible outward sign.

Brand culture plays an essential role in differentiating brands. It indicates the ethos whose values are embodied in the products and services of the brand. Ralph Lauren is WASP; Calvin Klein's minimalism expresses a different set of values.

This facet is the one that helps differentiate luxury brands the most because it refers to their sources, to their fundamental ideals and to their sets of values. Culture is also the basis for most bank brands: choosing a bank means choosing the kind of relationship with money one wishes to have. Even though their services are identical (physical facet), the Visa Premier and the American Express Gold cards do not belong to the same cultural system. The American Express Gold card symbolises dynamic, triumphant capitalism. Money is shown, or even flashed about. Visa Premier, on the contrary, represents another type of capitalism, such as the German kind, making steady, quiet progress. Money is handled discreetly yet efficiently, neither gingerly nor flamboyantly.

4. A brand is a relationship. Indeed, brands are often at the crux of transactions and exchanges between people. This is particularly true of brands in the service sector and also of retailers, as we shall see later. The Yves Saint Laurent brand functions with charm: the underlying idea of a love affair permeates both its products and its advertising (even when no man is shown). Dior's symbolises another type of relationship: one that is grandiose and ostentatious (not in the negative sense), flaunting the desire to shine like gold.

Nike bears a Greek name that relates it to specific cultural values, to the Olympic Games and to the glorification of the human body. Nike suggests also a peculiar relationship, based on provocation: it encourages us to let loose (‘just do it'). IBM symbolises orderliness, whereas Apple conveys friendliness. Moulinex defines itself as ‘the friend of women'. The Laughing Cow is at the heart of a mother- child relationship. The relationship aspect is crucial for banks, banking brands and services in general. Service is by definition a relationship. This facet defines the mode of conduct that most identifies the brand.

This has a number of implications for the way the brand acts, delivers services, relates to its customers.

5. A brand is a customer reflection. When asked for their views on certain car brands, people immediately answer in terms of the brand's perceived client type: that's a brand for young people! for fathers! for show-offs! for old folks! Because its communication and its most striking products build up over time, a brand will always tend to build a reflection or an image of the buyer or user which it seems to be addressing.

Reflection and target often get mixed up. The target describes the brand's potential purchasers or users.

Reflecting the customer is not describing the target; rather, the customer should be reflected as he/she wishes to be seen as a result of using a brand. It provides a model with which to identify. Coca-Cola, for instance, has a much wider clientele than suggested by the narrow segment it reflects (15- to 18-year-olds). How can such a paradox be explained? For the younger segment (8- to 13-year-olds), the Coca-Cola protagonists embody their dream, what they want to become and do later on when they get older (and thus freed from the strong parental relationship), ie an independent life full of fun, sports and friends will then become true. Youth identifies with those heroes. As for adults, they perceive them as representatives of a certain way of life and of certain values rather than of a narrowly defined age group. Thus, the brand also succeeds in bringing 30- or 40-year-old consumers to identify with this special way of life. Many dairy brands positioned on lightness or fitness and based on low fat products project a sporty young female customer reflection: yet they are actually purchased in the main by older people.

The confusion between reflection and target is quite frequent and causes problems. So many managers continue to require advertising to show the targeted buyers as they really are, ignoring the fact that they do not want to be portrayed as such, but rather as they wish to be - as a result of purchasing a given brand (or shopping at a given retailer's). Consumers indeed use brands to build their own identity. In the ready-to-wear industry, the obsession to look younger should concern the brands' reflection, not necessarily their target.

All brands must control their customer reflection. By constantly reiterating that Porsche is made for show-offs, the brand has weakened.

6. Finally, a brand speaks to our self-image. If reflection is the target's outward mirror (they are …), self-image is the target's own internal mirror (I feel, I am …). Through our attitude towards certain brands, we indeed develop a certain type of inner relationship with ourselves.

In buying a Porsche, for example, many Porsche owners simply want to prove to themselves that have the ability to buy such a car. In fact, this purchase might be premature in terms of career prospects and to some extent a gamble on their materialisation. In this sense, Porsche is constantly forcing to push beyond one's limits (hence its slogan: ‘Try racing against yourself, it's the only race that will never have an end'). As we can see,

Porsche's reflection is different from its consumers' self-image: having let the brand develop such a negative reflection is a major problem.

Even if they do not practise any sports, Lacoste clients inwardly picture themselves (so the studies show) as members of an elegant sports club - an open club with no race, sex or age discrimination, but which endows its members with distinction. This works because sport is universal. One of the characteristics of people who eat Gayelord Hauser health and diet products is that they picture themselves not just as consumers, but as proselytes. When two Gayelord Hauser fans meet, they can strike up a conversation immediately as if they were of the same religious obedience. In promoting a brand, one pledges allegiance, demonstrating both a community of thought and of self-image, which facilitates or even stimulates communication.

These are the six facets which define the identity of a brand as well as the boundaries within which it is free to change or to develop. The brand identity prism demonstrates that these facets are all interrelated and form a well-structured entity. The content of one facet echoes that of another. The identity prism derives from one basic concept - that brands have the gift of speech. Brands can only exist if they communicate. As a matter of fact, they grow obsolete if they remain silent or unused for too long. Since a brand is a speech in itself (as it speaks of the products it creates and endorses the products which epitomise it), it can thus be analysed like any other speech or form of communication.

Semiologists have taught us that behind any type of communication there is a sender, either real or made up. Even when dealing with products or retailers, communication builds an image of its speaker or sender and conveys it to us. It is truly a building process in the sense that brands have no real, concrete senders (unlike corporate communication). Nevertheless, customers, when asked through projective techniques, do not hesitate to describe the brand's sender, ie the person bearing the brand name. Both the physique and personality help define the sender thus built for that purpose.

Every form of communication also builds a recipient: when we speak, everything seems as if we were addressing a certain type of person or audience. Both the reflection and self image facets help define this recipient, who, thus built, also belongs to the brand's identity.

The last two facets, relationship and culture, bridge the gap between sender and recipient.

The brand identity prism also includes a vertical division (see Figure 7.4). The facets to the left - physique, relationship and reflection - are the social facets which give the brand its outward expression. All three are visible facets. The facets to the right - personality, culture and self-image - are those incorporated within the brand itself, within its spirit. This prism helps us to understand the essence of both brand and retailer identities (Virgin, K-Mart, Talbott's).

Clues for strong identity prisms

Identity reflects the different facets of brand long-term singularity and attractiveness. As such it must be concise, sharp and interesting. Let us remember that brand charters are management tools: they are necessary for decentralised decision making. They must help all the people working on the brand to understand how the brand is special, in all its dimensions. They must also stimulate creative ideas: they are a springboard for brand activation. Finally, they must help us to decide when an action falls within the brand territory and when it does not.

As a consequence, a good identity prism is recognisable by the following formal characteristics:

  • There are few words to each facet.
  • The words are not the same on different facets.
  • All words have strength and are not lukewarm: identity is what makes a brand stand out.

Too often, in our consulting activity, we notice just the opposite:

  • Facets are filled up with image traits that derive from the last usage and attitude study. Let us remember that identity is not the same as image. The question is, which of these very many image items does the brand want to identify with?
  • There is a lot of redundancy between facets, the same words being used many times. This should not be possible. Although related, each facet addresses a different dimension of brand uniqueness.
  • Most of the words are looking for consensus, instead of looking for sharpness. Consumers do not see the strategies, nor do they see the brand platforms. They do experience the brand by its creations, or at contact, or in its places. To produce ideas, creative people need flesh: an identity with soul, body, forms, a real profile, not an average excellent profile, where nothing really stands out.

Sources of identity: brand DNA

How can we define a brand's identity? How can we define its boundaries, its areas of strength and of weakness?

Anyone in charge of managing a well-established brand is perfectly aware that the brand has little by little gained its independence and a meaning of its own. At birth, a brand is all potential: it can develop in any possible way. With time, however, it tends to lose some degree of freedom; while gaining in conviction, its facets take shape, delineating the brand's legitimate territory. Tests confirm this progression: certain product or communication concepts now seem foreign to the brand. Other concepts, on the contrary, seem to be perfectly in tune with the brand, as it both endorses and empowers them, by giving them greater credibility.

Brand image research does not provide any satisfactory answer to these questions. Neither do the purchasers when asked to say what they expect from the brand. Generally, they haven't a clue. At best, they answer in terms of the brand's current positioning. Thus, in the USA, and the UK, there are only very few purchasers of Saab cars: the brand is not widespread though it is expanding its market distribution network. That is why English or American owners see their Saab as unusual rather than foreign. When asked what they expect from the brand, they are, indeed, likely to answer that Saab must continue to design unusual, unique cars. In doing so, they expect that the brand will reinforce their own unusuality and uniqueness which they, as the only few marginal Saab buyers, most definitely want to demonstrate. Obviously, however, if Saab focused exclusively on such self-centred expectations, its market share would most certainly remain restricted: the economic future of the Saab automotive division would then be under threat.

Consumers and prospects are often asked what their ideal brand would be and what attributes it would need in order to get universally approved. This approach fails to segment properly the expectations and thus to produce any definition other than the average brand ideal. It is typical for consumers to expect banks to provide expertise and attention, availability and competence, proximity and know-how. These expectations are also ideal in the sense that they are often incompatible. In pursuing them, such brands may lose their identity and regress to the average level. In seeking at all costs to resemble the ideal brand described by the consumers (or industrial buyers), brands thus often begin to downplay their differences and look average.

The mistake is to pursue this market ‘ideal': it's up to each brand to pursue an ideal of its own. Commercial pressure naturally requires a firm to stay attuned to the market. Of course no brand envies the destiny of Van Gogh, who lived a life of misery and became famous only after he died. Nonetheless, present brand management policy must be reappraised, because unfortunately it still assumes that consumers are the masters of brand identity and strategy. Consumers are actually quite incapable of carrying out such functions. Firms should, therefore, begin to focus more on the sending side of brand marketing and less on the receiving side.

Trying to define the specifics of a brand's substance and intrinsic values naturally requires an understanding of what a real brand is all about. A brand is a plan, a vision, a project. This plan is hardly ever written down (except for the few brands which have a brand charter). It can therefore only be inferred from the marks left by the brand, ie the products it has chosen to endorse and the symbols by which it is represented. Discovering the essence of brand identity, ie of the brand's specific and unique attributes, is the best way to understand what the brand means overall. That is why identity research must start from the typical products (or services) endorsed by the brand as well as on the brand name itself, the brand symbol if there is one, the logo, the country of origin, the advertisements and the packaging. The purpose of all this is to semiologically analyse the sending process by trying to discover the original plan underlying the brand's objectives, products and symbols. Generally, this plan is simply unconscious, neither written anywhere, nor explicitly described. It is simply enacted in daily decisions. Even creators of famous brand names (Christian Lacroix, Yves Saint Laurent, Calvin Klein or Liz Claiborne) are not conscious of it: when asked about the general plan, they are indeed unable to explain it clearly, yet they can easily say what their brand encompasses and what it does not. Brand and creator merge. We have shown (p 95) that, paradoxically, a luxury brand does not really begin to exist until its creator dies. It then shifts from body and instinct to plan and programme.

In conducting research on brand identity, it may well be that we discover several underlying plans. The history of a brand indeed reflects a certain discontinuity in the decisions made by different brand managers over time. Thus Citroen changed when it was purchased by Michelin, and later by Peugeot. A lot of its cars have left no print, although they reached a high level of sales. Rather than attempt the impossible task of making sense of all its products, brand managers must choose the sense that will best serve the brand in its targeted market and focus only on that one. Finally, when dealing with a weak brand, we might not discover any consistent plan at all: in this case, the brand is more like a name stuck on a product than a real player in the field. This situation is very similar to the initial stage of brand creation: the brand has great latitude and almost infinite possibilities, even though it has already planted the seeds of its potential identity in the memory of the market.

The brand's typical products

The product is the first source of brand identity. A brand indeed reveals its plan and its uniqueness through the products (or services) it chooses to endorse. A genuine brand does not usually remain a mere name printed on a product, ie a mere graphic accessory added on at the end of a production or distribution process. The brand actually injects its values in the production and distribution process as well as in the corollary services offered at the point of sale. The brand's values must therefore be embodied in the brand's most highly symbolic products.

This last sentence calls for some attention. Cognitive psychology (Kleiber, 1990; Rosch, 1978; Lakoff, 1987) has taught us that it is easier to define certain categories by simply showing their most typical members than by specifying what product features are required to be considered a member of those categories.

As stated in this example, it is difficult to define the ‘game' concept, ie to specify the characteristics which could help us identify when we are in a game situation and when we are not. For abstract categories, made of heterogeneous products, the difficulty is even greater. In this case, brands can serve as examples only if they are not exclusively attached to one specific product. What is Danone? When does a product deserve to be named Danone and when does it not? The same holds true for Philips or Whirlpool.

Consumers can easily answer this question: they are indeed able to group products in terms of their capacity to typically represent and perfectly exemplify a large spectrum brand. This is shown in Table 7.3, which ranks Danone's most typical products against Yoplait's, according to the consumers' point of view.

The most representative product is called the ‘brand prototype', not in the sense of an airplane or car prototype, but rather in that of the best exemplar of the brand's meaning. In this respect, in Europe Danone has two prototypical products: plain yoghurt (natural) and the refrigerated dessert cream, Danette.

The cognitive psychologists around Rosch (1978) claim that prototypes actually transfer some of their features to the product category (Kleiber, 1990). In other words, if there were no definition of Danone, the public would probably be able to come up with one anyway, by taking a close look at the features of Danone's most representative products. This is what we call prototype semantics. It is true that each brand spontaneously brings to mind certain products - some more than others - and actions as well as a certain style of communication.

These prototype products are representative of the various facets of brand identity. According to some cognitive psychologists, such products may convey brand identity, but above all they generate it. In fact, when questioned on Danone's brand image, consumers are more likely to answer in terms of Danone's prototype products.

Historically, it is quite significant that Danone became famous with its plain yoghurt, a product which had previously been sold in pharmacies as natural

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