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Why the difference between marketing and branding is so important

In his provocative book The Marketing Complex, Giles Lury sets out the need for marketers to take back ownership of their brands and embrace the need to manage the multiplicity of such valuable assets.

As well as challenging the blanket assumption that ‘the customer is king’ - which so many brands have come to adopt as their favoured mantra - The Marketing Complex highlights the difference between marketing and branding, and how the customer, in fact, plays a different role in each. Here, Lury summarizes the argument.

The Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) uses the definition that ‘Marketing is the management process responsible for identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer requirements profitably’.

Central to this, therefore, is an understanding of the current and future needs of customers, and developing a way in which you can meet them (normally and ideally, with profit). However, this doesn’t hold true for charities and other not-for-profit organizations.

Marketing’s role is, therefore, to gain insights into what customers really want and what drives or motivates them, so companies and brands can develop and market products or services that are relevant and appealing to these needs, and likely to succeed in the long run as a result. Marketing is about defining what should be taken to market and how the brand should make that journey.

Branding, on the other hand, is about having a purpose and a philosophy that uses appropriate marketing to express those beliefs, and so ‘convert’ people to it (again, normally profitably), and usually over time. Drawing a deliberately extreme parallel, branding is more akin to a religion. Branding, in its purest sense, is about defining the core purpose of a brand, its fundamental raison d’être, and the principles on which it operates.

Essentially, marketing focuses on the way in which the brand goes to market, while branding focuses on defining the long-term philosophy of the brand in and across markets.

It is from reconciling the needs of the philosophy of the brand with the needs of the customer, that brand distinctiveness evolves. If marketing just takes account of what the customer wants it will produce generic products, services and communications; if it just takes account of the brand philosophy it may not present those products and services in ways that appeal to its customers.

If done well, this balancing act will drive a successful brand but also highlight the differences between marketing and branding; why for many marketers the customer is king, and why for brand purists, the customer is only one stakeholder (and probably not the most important one at that).

Marketing should be customer-led

Customer understanding and insight is fundamental to good marketing. There is a strong argument that when developing a specific proposition for a brand (or sub-brand or specific product or service) the target audience - the customer - needs to be at the heart of what is being developed. A better understanding of your customer and their motivations will help you develop a better offer, which is more appealing and engaging for them. One that is tailored to, and for, them.

In fact, if you look at how they are constructed many of the current ‘positioning’ models, are actually more like frameworks for proposition development. They are eminently suitable for this sort of work, even if this means they are mislabelled.

For a brand philosophy, you need to start with the brand itself, not the customer

For brands and their positioning, the customer isn’t necessarily king. It isn’t as simple as just giving one particular subset of customers what they want. A modern brand positioning needs to be based on the purpose, beliefs and personality, namely, the philosophy of the brand.

You need to start with the business that owns it, the founders’ principles, and take into account its competitive context and all the different stakeholder groups, including the various subsets of different customer target groups.

If every brand owner was to put their core customers’ desires and needs at the heart of their brand and made those consumers their masters, then the result would likely be that all brands in any given market or category would all end up in the same place.

In the search for insights to build those brands upon, an awful lot of intelligent people working for a lot of large companies, would be asking the same sorts of consumers the same questions, often in the same way and, unsurprisingly, would receive the same answers, and so, similar positionings.

There are, in fact, a number of markets where you can see an increasing homogenization of brand propositions. Yet if this desire to make the customer king and the abdication of responsibility continues into brand positioning development, it will be a recipe for blandness - not brand-ness.

Consumers will not be able to see any difference between your, and your competitors’, brand and will have no basis on why they should choose yours – unless, of course, it’s cheaper (although this is not always a recipe for profitability!)

Brands around the world have benefited from great marketing over the years, but the core of these brands comes not from their customers, but from the brands themselves. Branding is customer-fed, but not customer-led.


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