Brand equity and brand content

Working on brand equity, storytelling and community management with customers in recent months gave us food for thought regarding the relationship between a brand and the contents associated to that brand. Our conclusion is that the interaction between brand and brand contents may either be nurturing or weakening the brand irrespective of the intrinsic "quality" of contents. In fact, it's a matter of consistency between what the brand stands for in the minds of its consumers and the contents associated with that brand. That degree of consistency will define how trustworthy the brand appears to be and how credible and desirable the brand stories are in the eyes of the consumers.

It's all a matter of how one considers the value of a brand, at the brand equity expressed in how the buyers of products under that brand behave in economically measurable terms, but we like to imagine brand equity as a "stock of trust", an amount of intangible assets such as attitude towards the brand, preference for the brand, emotions associated with the brand...etc. If that is how we decide to look at things, then each time a given content is associated with the brand there is an interaction that will either confirm the brand values in the minds of the audience exposed to the content, or generate some form of cognitive dissonance because the content will appear as inconsistent with brand values, one of which is the promise of a balanced and respectful relationship between the brand and its customers. David Ogilvy used to characterize the brand image as a "complex symbol" and he wrote in his Confesssions of an Advertising Man:
"Every advertisement should be thought of as a contribution to the complex symbol that is the brand image."
If Ogilvy were alive today he would probable have said as much regarding all sorts of contents that get associated with brands in our hyper-connected world, where each brand is in its own right a content producer, en experience generator as well as a media channel interacting with or using other media channels on this immensely complex platform called "the Internet". And we're just not going to discuss too much the so-called offline world, because it is slowly but surely being digitized in some form or other, which is why digital transition is a very hot matter these days.
Thus, the contents that get associated with a brand actually strengthen or weaken the perception of the audience, of the public, of the consumer. The contents will therefore either nurture or weaken the brand, and the whole situation becomes ever more complex as each individual in the audience is theoretically capable of expressing themselves freely online thus generating additional content about the content that gets attached to the brand itself and therefore influences by ripple effect the "complex symbol", the brand image in the minds of the public. Of course, the individuals who will choose to express their opinions, support, criticism, irony or other reaction, will be expressing their different facets too and in terms of archetypes one may say that they will speak as citizen, workers, professionals, fathers, mothers, elders, fans or mere consumers, which makes the qualitative assessment of the interaction difficult to assess automatically even though the quantitative impact may be measurable in terms of shares, likes, clicks, re-tweets, pins, plus-ones, check-ins or other avatars of quantification of interaction. But in terms of interaction between brand and content, what matters is as much quantity as quality.
So brands that focus exclusively on quantitative aspects in their initiatives will invariably miss the very essential matter of brand equity and how it develops in the long run. That's clearly something that Tony Hsieh of Zappos gets very well when he speaks of building a formidable brand, of culture being the other side of the coin called brand equity and of the time it takes to build a formidable brand. A prime example of brands failing to factor the qualitative aspect of brand content in their approach is given by a number of media brands, especially in the press subcategory, that have been obsessed with traffic and volumes of likes on Facebook over the years without much consideration for what kind of news and what kind of contents get that quantitative lift that is supposed to indicate attention of the audience. Thus, second rate stories about some purported sex scandal of a celebrity or individual showing their cat's prowess at something unusual may be pushed and strongly exposed by historic media brands, with a reputation for good news coverage and investigative journalism, simply because these contents will draw attention owing to their outrageous or exceptional nature. But what happens in that case? If we were to get down to what happens in terms of interaction between the brand and the content, we would see that that piece of content gains credibility because of the brand value and therefore it extracts value out of the brand to achieve a level of credibility, which gets the audience to click, share or comment. Does that mean that the right audience has been engaged? Does that mean that the engagement is high quality engagement? Does that create loyalty between the media brand and the public? The answer is no and the fact is that the brand equity of the media is weakened by its association with content that does not fulfill the promise of the brand and therefore that the audience is slowly but surely being altered in all sorts of ways that are ultimately detrimental to the brand until that brand stabilizes with a transformed audience that will be seeking more scandalous content and less credibility, trust and quality of information. That's in very short a part of the story of the tabloid brands and it is the exact opposite of the story of respected media brands that have been able to make the transition to digital like the New York Times, the Guardian, The Economist... And it is also the story of new media brands like Propublica, which was non existent only a few years ago and is now a respected source of investigative, fact-based, analytically relevant journalism and wiely considered as an extremely effective in transmitting knowledge about complex topics.