What is it that makes a brand? And how does it affect people? There are certainly as many answers to these questions as there are brand specialists on this planet. So do we really need another discussion, one that throws a few more coins into a overflowing tip jar? Probably not. But we'll see if it'll will make a difference in the end.
Nothing, but literally nothing, in the world exists in isolation. Everything is interdependent and multidimensional, multi-layered and therefore perhaps also contradictory. We as humans are not so good at dealing with this complexity. That's why it always helps to simplify things and reduce them to their essence. Can and must be done by all means; but nevertheless, one should somehow still, or at least a little bit, do justice to the interconnectedness of reality.
So let's start by looking at the brand in context. If we were to do it like the sociologists, we could use structural functionalism and divide society into individual functional areas. Brands would certainly be prescribed in the subarea of the economy, and perhaps also in culture. But what about the sub-areas of politics and the community? Brands can also be political and social. That's all true, but somehow it doesn't lead anywhere.
We notice: Brands are difficult to grasp; they are more than just economic organizations. Because they convey values and feelings, symbolize status and belonging, and so on. More on this below. They are close to people, communicate humanly, but are of course still not human (thank you, captain obvious). So brands somehow operate on a meso level. Meso, that's between micro (people) and macro (organizations, society, world).
The expectations placed on brands today go beyond the pure brand-consumer relationship. When brands (should) take a stand, for example against racism or for equal opportunities, they participate in social debates. When brands not only greenwash the issue of sustainability, but also challenge themselves with, for example, radical transparency, ecologically (ere)n production processes, or CO₂ compensation, they are taking a stand for the environment of all of us. We are thus becoming increasingly aware that brands have an impact on and at the macro level. But of course also on and in the micro level. Brands are not actors that miraculously hatch out of their cocoon overnight and everyone knows what kind of butterfly they are and where they are going.
Brands are quasi-actors. They are first created in the minds of the people who design them and are then, in barely conscious processes of negotiation, made into what they are: a shared illusion. Corporate design gives them a shape, testimonials a face, and service employees a voice. In this way, brands become comprehensible - and yet are somehow intangible.
A brand becomes more tangible in its actions and effects. Classically, brand impact is simply viewed in terms of a linear, one-sided relationship between brand and people. But let's try to take the complexity into account a bit more here. And let's look at different forms of interaction between brand and customer.
Sales or return on investment (ROI, you know) are often seen as the most important economic metrics. And fortunately, this is just as often criticized. After all, bare numbers don't begin to tell us how people and brands have interacted. They only show that the interaction was crowned with monetary success. Ka-Ching.
One step in the right direction, from the outdated focus on sales, is funnel thinking. The sales funnel is supposed to map the customer journey: from the first contact with a brand to the behavior after a purchase. This at least acknowledges that different brand messages have different influences on different phases of the conversion process.
But here too, there's a but: Funnels are also just highly simplistic templates that are superimposed on reality. Every human-brand interaction is unique. It may be possible to tentatively approximate reality with the help of several suitable attribution models. Because: the more clusters of individual cases you take into account, the more realistic the funnel becomes. But still: there is probably nothing left of the simplifying funnel shape. Too bad chocolate. And it's not really a brand effect yet either.
Another concept that is on everyone's marketing lips is trust. Positive trust towards a brand is built up by the customer slowly, step by step, touchpoint by touchpoint. But it can also be broken quickly and thus bring negative consequences. By the way, trust does not only have to mean that customers rely on a brand not doing dirty business; trust is not only the absence of rip-offs, but rather the presence of expectability: That the product or service I want to buy will also have the desired effect in my life. That the brand will have the desired social impact on others. That my quality expectations are met.
Maybe you can already feel it, we are slowly approaching what makes a brand: it's the interaction between brand and people, the ping-pong of expectations and fulfillments, the communicative back and forth. The interaction. That means not only the effect of brand on people, but also the feedback. A relationship characterized not by one-, but by two-sidedness.
The relationship between a person and a brand is always unique. Because it is shaped by mutual experiences and expectations. Just like any other relationship, right? Not quite. You can't compare the human-brand relationship with an interpersonal relationship. In most cases, people-to-people relationships are synchronous, even if there are, of course, hierarchical differences or power imbalances. Synchronous means that within a relationship often the same rules apply, emotions are shared and similar (counter)values are exchanged. As a human being, one's own behavior is often mirrored in one's relationships: whether in a friendship or partnership, in a work or club relationship. The way you treat me is the way I treat you.
This is the central difference to the human-brand relationship. In that relationship, there are also interactions, but they are completely different. On one side there is a person, on the other a brand - a quasi-actor. It's an asynchronous relationship, an oblique bridge that spans between the meso and micro levels. As humans, we can love, hate, or be indifferent to a brand. But interpersonal love, hate or indifference function according to a completely different logic. They have a different emotional quality.
A human-brand relationship is soberly and primarily a barter, a give and take: Material goods or immaterial services are exchanged for a monetary value. Brand and customer are linked by the product or a service. End of story? Not at all. In this asynchronous relationship, there is also an exchange of emotions and other immaterial qualities.
Brands have the ability to add value to people with just a logo or a customer experience. And because we are talking about brands, not just products, this added value goes beyond the tangible: brands are symbolism. By choosing a particular brand, a customer also chooses an attitude toward life, a sense of belonging to a particular group. In addition, brands can help a person to satisfy the three most important basic needs: to feel autonomous, competent, but also socially integrated (you can read about this in Ryan and Deci's Self Determination Theory; but you can also leave it alone). Because with a brand I buy a piece of what I want to be. Brand is expectation fulfillment and need satisfaction at the same time. And that in turn gives me, as a human being, expectability and security. And isn't that all we want? Especially in a world that is becoming more and more complex.
As mentioned earlier, a holistic model of brand impact also includes the other side of the coin: the interaction between people and brands. Because this direction cannot be given enough attention. Especially when it comes to the task of branding and customer relationship management. Of course, the most obvious effect is the monetary equivalent that consumers:in bring in; the sales, the ROI. Maybe also the number of followers or the size of the newsletter distribution list.
But again, there's more to it than that. It is the trust, already discussed above, which people place in a brand step by step. And in the long term, this can even solidify into genuine brand loyalty. In addition, people give a brand the essential feedback on all possible channels. If it is constructive and critical, it should become the basis for the further development of the brand or the offers - even if this opportunity is unfortunately missed far too often in reality.
Let's also not forget the positive feedback that motivates the people who work for the brand to do great things. Ultimately, people also give back to brands the most important non-monetary value in return: the accolade from satisfied customers, the positive word-of-mouth. As social beings, we put our heads together with other people, share brand experiences and make recommendations. It is in these social encounters that the true value and symbolism of brands is negotiated. This is the impact power that brand strategies can least control. Because it is what it is: brands are shared illusions whose meaning we as humans collectively determine.
The world is complex. And brands help us humans to navigate this complexity. Brand models, in turn, try to capture the complexity of brand effects and put them on digital paper. As the author, I can't judge whether these human-brand considerations have added any money to the questions. Maybe the cents don't match the other coins either. But one thing is certain: these thoughts and sketches are incomplete and will always remain expandable.