Brand Management vs. Brand Experience: What’s in Your Control?

If you’re a child of the 1980’s, you probably remember this iconic shampoo commercial:

Admit it. You repeated the mantra of “I told two friends, and they told two friends, and so on, and so on …” in many settings. Heather loved her shampoo, and there was probably something you loved just as much (or a story you couldn’t wait to share) that fit the bill. 

I look back on this with nostalgia for the straightforwardness of the shampoo’s implied “ask” for sharing the message, but also as a self-admitted brand junkie. Thinking about it recently caused me to pause, and examine what the world of brand management meant back then, and what it means now. My original, off-the-cuff thought process was to think about how much easier it was back then, and how much more control brand managers had over their brands. After all, it was typically a one-way communication strategy, and any conversations happening about the brand were between “two friends” and not available for the public to participate in. 

Then I stopped that train of thought, and admitted something to myself that may make brand managers around the globe cringe. Are we just kidding ourselves that we can actually MANAGE a brand?  

Have Brands Ever Been Manageable?

Early in my career, I learned that magical lesson that all of us brand junkies live by:

Your brand isn’t what you say it is. It’s what your audience says it is.

Yes, Heather was telling her two friends, who told two friends, and so on, and so on… But what exactly was she saying when she was spreading the word? Yes, brand managers can generally control the messages we broadcast to our audiences. But remember, it’s not about what or who we say we are. Our audience’s perception relies on how they’re experiencing the brand, and there are many touch points involved in this. What stories are their interactions telling your audience? How does each touch point add to their positive experience, or distance them from your brand? The answers to these questions determine what your brand will become in the minds of your audience. 

In our example of Heather, perhaps she was telling her friends that the shampoo made her hair feel good, but the bottle was slippery and hard to open, or the smell wasn’t quite what she expected. Or maybe it costs just a little more than she’d like to pay. And what about the sales staff’s lack of knowledge when she was at the store deciding which shampoo to buy? Her experience in all of these areas, not the product itself or the marketing messages she’d heard, shaped the story that she shared with her two friends. 

Does this sound manageable? OK, I will concede, there are things brand managers can do to maintain the integrity of the brand at all touch points. My point is that even back in the days of limited outlets for broadcasting information, 100% control has never been possible. Many things are, quite simply, out of the brand manager’s control. 

Have We Lost or Gained Control of our Brands in 2022?

Today, there are many more people telling their “friends” what they think of your brand in a very public way to a lot more than two people at a time. (Just imagine how many people Heather could have told about her shampoo today!) Many would like to argue that with so many voices and so much noise, we’ve lost our ability to truly manage our brands and the conversations around them. I’m not sure I buy into this. Follow me for just a moment, because here’s my theory:

  1. We’ve never really had 100% control of our brands, as I’ve outlined above.
  2. In the good old days, conversations were happening privately. We couldn’t listen, so we didn’t really know what many people were saying. (Let’s set the argument about market-research-can-tell-us-these-things aside. Not every brand on the planet does market research, and no one does it every day, everywhere.)
  3. We now have the ability to build communities of advocates for our brands. This actually starts on the inside. Do your employees understand and value what you do? Could they explain your products and services to Grandma at Sunday dinner in a way she can relate to and get excited about? When external audiences see passion from the inside, it can influence their own passion. 

As brand managers, it’s our job today to listen, inspire conversations, ask questions, and give the audience what they value most from us. You can manage that process, and influence what the audience feels, but you cannot control it. 

And that’s OK. That shouldn’t be your objective. 

Instead, focus on building an ongoing relationship, allowing people to get to know who you really are. Be open to hearing everyone – even your critics and naysayers. You’re humble and proud at the same time. You’re talking and listening in real-time dialogue. You’re addressing missteps while engaging your community. You’re acknowledging that everyone has a voice that’s important to and valued in the conversation. This process creates authenticity and shows the brand in a “one-of-us” framework. 

Have you lost control of the brand in this environment? Far from it. What you’ve done is empowered legions of people to speak on your behalf, arming them with tools and experiences to broadcast your message in a way that’s real, from the heart, and unscripted. Let this happen, and your brand will shine through in ways you may never have imagined.