Secondary Meaning: The Measure of Brand Strategy
by Jerry W. Thomas

  • Secondary Meaning

    A brand is some type of symbol, name, or sign that identifies and distinguishes one product or service from competitive products or services (and we can think of “identifies” and “distinguishes” as the practical functions of a brand).

    There are also intangible elements, such as status signals, values, emotions and feelings, visual imagery, and personality traits that can be linked to a brand name.

Trademark law has an interesting concept called “secondary meaning,” and over time a brand acquires secondary meaning through usage and advertising. This secondary meaning is in effect a measurement of the culmination (the added value) of a brand strategy. For example, the word “caterpillar” refers to the pupa of a butterfly (a worm-like creature with many legs). That’s what we think of when we hear the word “caterpillar.” However, the word “caterpillar” has also acquired secondary meaning as the identity of a brand of earth-moving equipment. In this context, “Caterpillar” has acquired massive secondary meaning: it stands for strength, steel, durability, and power; it stands for building, construction, and progress; it stands for diesel clatter and the color yellow. Brand strategy is about building the right type of secondary meaning for your brand.

A great brand strategy pays huge long-term dividends. Brand Strategy is built atop three powerful foundational concepts: the first is “concentration of effort and energy,” so that your branding themes and messages break through all the noise and the clutter; the second foundational concept is brand “differentiation.” That is, how do you differentiate your brand from competitive brands? This differentiation can be real (for example, a technological or performance advantage) or perceptual (e.g., superior brand imagery). The third foundational concept is targeting. Which markets or market segments should your brand focus on? As you can see, there is similarity between the first concept and the third, in that both involve focusing marketing efforts. Once you have exploited these basic concepts to your advantage to create a solid brand strategy, you can charge higher prices and enjoy greater customer loyalty. You then have some protection from the ups and downs of business cycles; you also have some insulation, or cushion, to protect you against adverse publicity, and a good brand strategy makes all of your advertising and marketing investments work better.

Brand strategy can be applied to the corporation itself. For example, Procter & Gamble is a very large consumer packaged goods company that owns hundreds of brands, such as Tide detergent, Crest toothpaste, Bounty paper towels, Downy fabric softener, Pampers diapers, and many others. Each of these brands has its own strategy and marketing plan to support it. Likewise, Procter & Gamble as a major corporation has its own strategy and marketing plan that is largely separate from the strategies of its many brands. Most likely, P&G’s corporate strategy and marketing are focused on investors around the world who might choose to invest money in P&G and on governments and thought leaders globally that might want to impede or block the company’s commercial activities. The concepts of brand strategy apply to corporations as well as to their individual brands.

What are the core elements of a brand strategy? It involves asking basic marketing questions and thinking deeply about the answers. “Who do we target?” “How do we position our brand vis-a-vis other brands?” “How do we differentiate our brand? “What type of a brand image do we want to portray?” We also need to think about what kind of personality we want our brand to stand for. If the category is potato chips, we may want the brand’s image and personality to be fun and bouncy, but if we’re selling caskets, we may choose a somber and serious tone. So, target market, differentiation, brand image and personality, and pricing must be woven together so that they harmonize and reinforce each other to achieve synergy.

How do you get to an optimal brand strategy? It’s complicated and takes a lot of iterations. Brand strategy results from a combination of a) good primary research and b) strategic vision. You need both of these inputs to create great strategy. Typically, qualitative research techniques are relied upon (focus groups, depth interviews, ethnography) to really understand the deeper motivations and perceptions and how people feel and think about your brand and competitive brands. The qualitative research helps define the language, concepts, and ideas that can be employed to build the brand strategy, and then comes the survey-based research to prove beyond doubt which strategy will lead to a winning brand.

Strategy concept testing among the target audience can quickly narrow down the strategy possibilities. Very often, a brand might identify 10 to 20 possible strategies based on the qualitative explorations but creating a brand strategy goes beyond the research input. The strategy concepts are reviewed by senior executives, and they are asked to think deeply about what the brand could become or should stand for in the future. Melding the research understanding with management’s strategic vision yields the very best strategy concepts to test. These vision-enhanced strategy concepts are then evaluated by survey-based concept testing among target audiences. Monadic testing is always recommended if corporate budgets can afford the investment. Then, it is test, refine, and retest until we arrive at a strategy concept that scores high enough to justify the actual adoption and execution of the brand strategy.

It is important to do this strategy concept testing, because if you know your strategy is right, and you know it will work long-term, then you can stick with the strategy through thick and thin. You can consistently invest advertising dollars to support the strategy because you have analytics and evidence that the strategy will work. You can invest money in the strategy knowing that it will pay off in the long term. Many great strategies have been abandoned before they ever had time to work, because senior executives lose their confidence in the strategy. It’s so important to know that your strategy is right, so you and your company can commit to it and invest the advertising dollars to make the strategy pay off over time.

The details of strategy execution can magnify and enrich the strategy. A wonderful example is Morton Salt. Over 100 years ago, the company developed a salt that did not cake up when exposed to high moisture. Morton Salt and its ad agency developed the great slogan, “When it rains, it pours.” The agency created an ad picturing a confident young girl with an umbrella walking in the rain and carrying a package of Morton Salt (accidentally pouring out of the package). The girl’s energy, self-confidence, and the bounce in her steps added immensely to the appeal and the attention-value of the ad. Executional details like these can magnify and enhance brand strategy; conversely, poor execution can doom a strategy. That’s why it is so important to test the advertising to make sure it is as good as the strategy. Executional details really matter, and consumer research can help us tweak and fine-tune and test and retest, so that we can harmonize all the advertising details to magnify the effect of the overall brand strategy.

One final thought: if the brand strategy is right, and if it’s consistently pursued, and if the advertising investments are sufficient to break through the noise and clutter, over the long-term that brand can become extremely valuable. In many companies, the value of the brands they own is much greater than the book value or the market value of the corporation itself. So, there’s a great prize at the end of the marketing rainbow if the brand strategy is right.

About the Author

Jerry W. Thomas is President/CEO of Decision Analyst, and he welcomes feedback and comments. He may be reached by email, or phone at 1-817-368-7048.


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