We don’t buy brands because of what they do. We buy them because of what they mean.
Managing brands is, in essence, about managing brand meanings. This process is based upon one simple but critical truth: strong brands are built upon strong meanings. The corollary also is straightforward: brands die when their meanings lose significance in consumers’ lives.
Today, meaning is everything, including the bottom line. The biggest marketing challenge is how to captivate the jaded or distracted (or both) consumer. As my colleagues and I discuss elsewhere, the Holy Grail is to create brand resonance where the product, service or store plays a key role that helps the user to define some aspect of social identity. Sneakerheads who covet the latest Air Jordans understand this, as do iPhone aficionados, MAC Cosmetics fanatics, Corvette collectors, loyal members of Beyoncé’s Beyhive, or hard-core Phillies fans.
What is the path to the Holy Grail? Actually there are several. Resonance describes the reverberation of a brand’s meanings within the contexts of the person’s life, the broader culture and the organization. This means we can embark on one of three routes:
1. Personal resonance is the fit between a brand’s claimed meaning portfolio and the consumer’s broader life context.
2. Cultural resonance defines the degree to which a brand’s claimed meanings reflect, echo, reinforce, and reshape the meanings from the collective social space that consumers access in defining and shaping their lives.
3. Organizational resonance refers to the alignment of the brand’s claimed meanings with the broader systems, structures, and behaviors of the firm.
When we look at successful brands, we typically see that they resonate with consumers because they claim a meaning along one of these paths. To take one example, a brand can resonate because it facilitates habits, rituals, and routines that entwine the brand’s meanings seamlessly into the person’s everyday life. BBDO calls these fortress brands. Starbucks has perfected a product and retail strategy that encourages ritualized and frequent interaction with its brand.
We can think of resonance as the apex of a pyramid that starts with simple awareness and moves up toward higher levels of beliefs and emotions. But most metrics don’t capture what happens much beyond the lower levels of this pyramid. The focus needs to shift from:
1. Brands as assets created and controlled by the firm, to brands as co-created entities that also “belong” to the people who use them and often modify them.
2. Brands that exist in the minds of consumers, to brands that live in cultures. Many meanings reflect collective understandings that emanate from shared values and priorities.
3. A focus on what brands mean at the moment in terms of dominant attributes, to an emphasis on how brands come to mean over time.
At the end of the day, resonance is everything.