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The case for a brand steward.

Call it brand steward or brand ombudsman, this position would have a special role to play in protecting a company's valuable brand equity.

Companies continually seem to become involved in highly public incidents (domestic and foreign) that have the potential to severely damage their brands and corporate name -- and are likely to harm their hard-earned brand equity.

Each week it seems that at least one new potentially brand damaging event occurs that brings some firm into the world spotlight. And, too often these events are self-inflicted; someone's worst-case scenario unfolds.

If we put aside the Bhopal and the Prince Edward Island/Valdez type of disasters, there are still a seeming myriad of examples of problems that result from faulty business decisions. Sometimes it is an unfortunate selection of a celebrity to represent the firm, or it may be an ill-fated promotion. Let's briefly consider two recent incidents that particularly reflect the sort of brand equity damage that can occur in the self-inflicting category. Each received extensive press coverage in the world business media:

* Maytag's Hoover subsidiary's November-December 1992 travel promotion in the U.K. that proved so successful that 200,000 participants became eligible for "free tickets to America." The U.K. managers had vastly underestimated the number of takers and as a result initiated an unprecedented series of media charges/exposes, executive blunders, public outcry, and a general undermining of a classic brand name in Europe. At a minimum, the out-of-pocket costs for a face-saving, damage control effort has been in the $40 million bracket.

* McDonald's Netherlands franchisee's giant in-store posters featuring a dramatized French chef preparing a beautiful meal and a bubble above his head indicating he would prefer a "Big Mac." Clever, but it proved not to be a dramatization photo, since through a blunder a picture of a real and, in fact, famous French chef had been used. Needless to say, this instigated legal action and the French citizenry were outraged at the insult.

The list could go one and on and would include many equally well-known corporations and global brands. Why these incidents are occurring now and in perhaps increased frequency is due at least in part to the size and complexity of today's organizations. Further, it is important to note that a number of the problems have occurred (or been subject to criticism) overseas, which demonstrates the rapid diffusion of information today and the globalness of firms.

One possible solution to consider for dealing with these brand equity threatening, self-destruct activities, as well as helping the firm to cope with worst-case disasters, is the establishment of a Brand Steward position in the corporation: an individual charged with ensuring that the brand's value is improved or at least that it retains its current power.

The Brand Steward Approach

Undoubtedly, many will say that the CEO or COO is ultimately responsible for the corporate name and brand successes and failures and, thus, is the individual to monitor all the firm's diverse activities in a way that preserves and enhances brand equity. This may be correct in concept, but it is unrealistic in practice. There are already too many demands upon this individual's time.

Many firms have someone (or group) responsible for protecting the brand(s) and the intellectual property of the firm. However, it is typically a corporate attorney, who is making certain there are no patent, logo, or other trademark infringements, or the brand manager. These individuals (or groups) have too narrow a view on the firm and are measured on inappropriate criteria for someone having true brand equity responsibility. In fact, the brand manager is working so hard to achieve immediate market share gains that a longer-term perspective is often inappropriate.

Similarly, the "crisis management" team in the firm should have input into the brand equity steward's efforts, but is seeing the firm from the "down side." Typically, like the corporate attorney, the team would be likely to be so defensive that little brand equity enhancement would occur under this group's direction.

What does seem appropriate is a new position, brand steward or brand ombudsman, whose sole responsibility is making certain that brand or corporate name self-inflicted wounds are avoided (or minimized) and that the good of a corporate name and brand are given the appropriate centerpiece in the firm.

This position (or assigned team) is quite a demanding one and should have a reporting line directly to the top of the firm. In a sense, this ombudsman-like role involves protecting the shareholders' chief intangible asset and as such, also has a board-related agenda to follow. The brand steward cannot act only defensively -- e.g., recommend avoiding a promotion that he or she sees fraught with risk -- but rather must foster those promotional and brand improving activities that add to the firm's overall brand equity position.

Success Criteria

To succeed, the brand steward must have a clear understanding of the firm's goals, access to the firm's overall strategic plans, access to all current domestic and foreign communications proposals prior to implementation, the firm's competitor analyses data, and an appreciation of the meaning and value of the firm's brands and corporate name.

However, the brand steward's understanding of the firm must go beyond the internal boundaries and include those of joint venture and alliance partners, licensees, etc. The individual must be aware of the socio-political issues in each market where the firm operates, the position of the firm's industry on key issues, and the positions held by all the firm's publics and critics. One might even say that this individual becomes the brand's conscience in all matters.

Finally, the most important feature of such a position is for it to have the information at hand to see the "big picture" for each action the firm proposes taking and to recognize the implications the action would have at home, for its subsidiaries and its various publics.

A firm's brand equity is gained over too long a period and at too high a cost to be treated injudiciously. This is the greatest intangible asset of the firm and many firms are now recognizing it must be treated as such. The actual or implicit creation of a brand steward would be an important step in securing that hard-won brand equity in the decade ahead.

John K. Ryans Jr. is Professor of Marketing and International Business at Kent State University. His teaching and administrative career spans some 25 years. He is an active speaker, writer, and consultant on global marketing issues, with Xerox, Digital Equipment, Goodyear Tire & Rubber, Novo Industri, and McCann-Erickson among the dozens of companies and organizations that are or have been his clients. He is currently completing a book on global corporate communications.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Building Brand Strength
Author:Ryans, John K., Jr.
Publication:Directors & Boards
Date:Jun 22, 1993
Words:1117
Previous Article:Maximizing trademark protection and value.
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