Brand Identity Traps

Brand Identity Traps represent approaches to creating an identity that are excessively limiting or tactical and that can lead to ineffective, and often dysfunctional, brand strategies. After these brand identity traps have been analyzed, a broader identity concept will be developed, its scope and structure discussed, and the value proposition and credibility that flow from it examined.

Brand Identity Traps

The Brand Image Trap

Knowledge of the brand image (how customers and others perceive the brand) provides useful and even necessary background information when developing a brand identity. In the brand image trap, however, the patience, resources, or expertise to go beyond the brand image is lacking, and the brand image becomes the brand identity rather than just one input to be considered.

The brand image trap does not tend to occur when a brand image is obviously negative or inappropriate. When there are only subtle image inadequacies caused by customers’ past brand experiences or by changes in their needs, however, the use of the brand image as an identity statement often goes unchallenged.

While brand image is usually passive and looks to the past, brand identity should be active and look to the future, reflecting the associations that are aspired for the brand. While brand image tends to be tactical, brand identity should be strategic, reflecting a business strategist that will lead to a sustainable advantage. The brand identity should also reflect the brand’s enduring qualities, even if they are not salient in the brand image. Like any identity, it represents the basic characteristics that will persist over time.

A brand identity is to brand strategy what “strategic intent” is to a business strategy. Strategic intent involves an obsession with winning, real innovation, stretching the current strategy, and a forward-looking, dynamic perspective; it is very different from accepting or even refining past strategy. Similarly, a brand identity should not accept existing perceptions, but instead should be willing to consider creating changes.

The Brand Position Trap

A brand position is the part of the brand identity and value proposition that is to be actively communicated to the target audience and that demonstrates an advantage over competing brands. Thus the brand position guides the current communication programs and is distinct from the more general brand identity construct. Some elements of brand identity (such as cleanliness for a restaurant) may not be actively communicated and other elements (such as a product class association) will recede in visibility as the brand matures. Thus there is a distinction between three related constructs:

brand image
brand identity brand position
How the brand is now perceived  How strategists want the brand to be perceived The part of the brand identity and value proposition to be actively communicated to a target audience

The brand position trap occurs when the search for a brand identity becomes a search for a brand position, stimulated by a practical need to provide objectives to those developing the communication programs. The goal then becomes an advertising tag line rather than a brand identity.

This trap inhibits the evolution of a full-fledged brand identity, be- cause strategists continuously weed out those aspects that they feel are not worth communicating. The tendency to focus on product attributes is intensified, and there is often no room to consider brand personality, organizational associations, or brand symbols because they simply do not make the cut when developing a three-word phrase.

Further, a compact phrase is unlikely to provide much guidance to brand-building activities. A brand position does not usually have the texture and depth needed to guide the brand-building effort—which event to sponsor, which package is superior, or what store display supports the brand. There is a need for a richer, more complete I understanding of what the brand stands for.

The External Perspective Trap

From the perspective of most brand strategists, a brand identity is something that gets customers to buy the product or service because of how they perceive the brand. The orientation is entirely external.

The external perspective trap occurs when firms fail to realize the role that a brand identity can play in helping an organization understand its basic values and purpose. Because an effective identity is based in part on a disciplined effort to specify the strengths, values, and vision of the brand, it can provide a vehicle to communicate internally what the brand is about. It is hard to expect employees to make a vision happen if they do not understand and buy into that vision.

In most organizations, employees have a difficult time answering the question, “What does your brand stand for?” “Achieving a 10 percent increase in sales” (or profitability)—an all-too-typical response—is hardly inspiring. In firms with strong brands, the response comes faster and with more substance from motivated, even inspired employees.

The Product-Attribute Fixation Trap

The most common trap of all is the product-attribute fixation trap, in which the strategic and tactical management of the brand is focused solely on product attributes. Based in part on the erroneous assump­tion that those attributes are the only relevant bases for customer decisions and competitive dynamics, the product-attribute fixation trap usually leads to less than optimal strategies and sometimes to damaging blunders.

A brand is more than a product. The failure to distinguish between a product and a brand creates the product-attribute fixation trap. Consider Hobart, which is the premium, dominant brand in industrial-grade food preparation equipment (such as mixers, slicers, dishwashers, and refrigerators). Hobart bases its brand identity and strategy on its product attributes: high quality, durability, reliability, and a premium price. In reality, however, the brand also delivers the feeling of buying and using the best.

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