The other day I was speaking with a colleague, and telling him about several articles I have written recently on branding. I was quite surprised to hear him say that while he knew what a brand was, he didn't really know what a brand was, why some brands were stronger than others, the deep purpose of the brand concept, and why some consumers are so brand loyal. This got me thinking (always a bad thing!), and made me consider the following…

Simply put, a brand is a promise, an expectation waiting to be fulfilled. But the promise of the brand isn't always fulfilled the moment the product is purchased; fulfillment of the promise can take time. Oil of Olay™ says that you should see a reduction in fine lines in weeks. Slim Fast™ promises that if you adhere to their program, over time you will see results. Instantaneous isn't always best. Some of the best brands are built over time, and on far more than catchy jingles, good advertising placement, and bold packaging. How? Through marketing. The real promise of a brand is built on the back end, by marketing.

Customers are more savvy and have greater expectations these days, more so than in any other place and time. Additionally, our society almost encourages brand disloyalty - what with discounts and special offers, for example - and especially with the rise of the Internet. Now, you can always find it cheaper, better, and faster. Yahoo!™ even lets you shop by comparing prices and stores, all from the comfort of one page, even while you wear your PJ's. In this climate, brands have to work extra hard to differentiate themselves, but more importantly to cultivate and keep loyal customers. Customers really do want to know "what have you done for me lately?".

Much of the brand draw, and the ability to create and cultivate a relationship with the customer based on the draw of the brand, is an emotional, not rational, decision. Both are needed for a brand to truly thrive, but emotion is key - without it, your brand can't survive. As technology allows for the production of products, or even duplication of services, that are incredibly similar the emotional connection will become the biggest part of a customer's decision-making process. The rational dictates that you must be able to support the back end - that once the customer buys into the emotional "pull", you must be able to deliver on the promise. The emotional makes the faster decision for the customer, and makes them buy into the brand experience, and is a huge factor in the development of loyalty to a brand.

Now I know, many of you are saying, "Branding, isn't that the domain of advertising?" Yes, and no. Both advertising and marketing must work together to help a company realize the strength and promise of their brand. As Scott Davis of Prophet stated, "Marketing puts the public face on the brand. Customers' experiences are influenced by how the promise of the brand is delivered through the call center, distribution channels, billing and service departments - in short, the Brand-Customer Relationship." Therefore, advertising may get the initial sale, but only marketing can keep and retain customers by making sure the promise is delivered, and from every contact point possible. It is critical to be consistent across the entire company and convey the same brand message and experience. This is crucial to the development of the Brand-Customer Relationship.

The Brand-Customer Relationship becomes - if properly done - part of the goodwill and core competency that a brand can leverage in gaining and maintaining customer trust and business. This relationship can lead to stronger brand equity, thereby creating a differentiating factor between your brand and the competition. Strong brand equity allows us to retain customers better, service their needs more effectively, and increase profits. Brand equity can be increased by successfully implementing and managing an ongoing relationship marketing effort by offering value to the customer, and listening to their needs. Disregarding the edge that the Brand-Customer Relationship offers in the market place and not utilizing the benefits and goodwill that the relationship creates will surely lead to failure in the long run.

Customer service, and the relationship a company has with a customer, is indeed part of the brand, and it is imperative that it is recognized as such. Many quibble with me when I say this, but the relationship is in many ways the strongest part of the brand. Competitors can copy packaging, product, ads, etc., but they have a much harder time copying your customer relationships, and more importantly your customers' loyalty. People aren't just buying a product or service from a strong brand; they are buying an idea, a perception, even a wish. In fact, many customers will pay more time and time again if they are getting what they perceive as fulfillment of the promise, and a great experience.

The central brand idea may be static among the entire customer and prospect bases, but the total sum of the brand idea or perception is rooted in the customer's experiences with the brand itself, and all its messages, interactions, and so on. In light of this, customer service and the entire marketing effort has a great deal to do with the strength of a brand. The fundamental strength and success of a brand lies in its ability - via marketing - to create and cultivate a strong and lasting relationship with its customers.

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Kristine Kirby Webster is Principal of The Canterbury Group, a direct-marketing consultancy specializing in branding and relationship marketing. She is also an Adjunct Professor of Direct Marketing at Mercy College in NY. She can be reached at