Your Audience Doesn’t Own your Brand

So what is that supposed to mean and why would people say that? The answer is a combination of being sensational and just plain confused. So let’s clear it up.

It’s become unfortunately popular to say that your brand belongs to your audience. You can see articles about it written in content marketing blogs, Chief Executive publications, brand publications, by marketing consultants and universities.

If it didn’t quite sound right to you the first time you heard that, it’s for good reason. What a silly thing to tell people. Your audience can’t change your typography or your color scheme. They can’t choose your mission statement or values. They can’t sell your name, logo, or trademark. So of course your audience doesn’t own your brand. So what is that supposed to mean and why would people say that? The answer is a combination of being sensational and just plain confused. So let’s clear it up.

Your audience shares the ability to shape the perception of your brand.

When your audience interacts with your brand, they form their own perception of it, and as they share their perception of your brand, they have the ability to influence others perception of it as well. This is where people get the idea that your audience owns your brand. And don’t get me wrong, it’s a significant point. Your audience is far more likely to experience your brand via word of mouth and word of mouth is much more powerful than any of your marketing efforts. Like a bad game of telephone, your brand is being repeated and amplified through personal biases, frames of reference, and other forms of misinterpretation.

But their perception is a still byproduct of your expression.

What people are forgetting is that while your audience may be spreading their perception of the brand, it is you that owns the ability to shape that initial perception. It is the ways and forms through which your audience interacts with your brand that shapes — for better or worse — their perception of it, which they in turn end up sharing with others. So, like a fifth-generation photocopy (will people still know what that is?) whatever is being shared is just an amplification of what was already there to begin with.

Brand expression should be a byproduct of coordinated brand strategy.

Proper brand strategy informs brand expression in such a way that expression springs forth from known immutable brand truths. Your brand shouldn’t be clean and minimal because you like Apple, or sophisticated because you like Prada, or because your customers like those companies for that matter. Your choices of brand expression are like waypoints on the map. They should be chosen based on their ability to help you get your brand where you’re trying to get it to go. In this way, brand expression intentionally shapes the consumers perception into what you want it to be. Then when your audience shares your brand with others, this approach assures that they are unconsciously remixing and sharing their own interpretation of your initial strategy.

It’s like a dream within a dream.

My approach to brand strategy isn’t an algorithm. If given X conditions then employ Y tactics. At the heart of my approach is a reverence for the art and science of inception. It’s ultimately about planting the simplest version of an idea, and then waiting for it to take hold.

The power of your brand is directly related to the purity of that core idea. If there are pollutants present when you plant the seed, it will be the pollutants that are amplified as your brand is shared around. The real skill is in achieving that level of clarity by triangulating the true essence of that “simplest version.”

So hopefully that clears it up and sufficiently prevents you from believing the misinformed hype that you somehow cannot be at cause in the interpretations of your brand. Not only do you own it, but when done right, brand is your most valuable asset.

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