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Who Really Owns Your Brand?

Your brand is really the relationship between your marketable asset and its market. “A brand is a promise kept” is the succinct definition we use. As a brand manager, your job is to shape and influence that relationship so that it stays healthy and happy and pumps money into your business. The market wants to keep the relationship strong to ensure continued access to your product and the emotional benefit it gains from it. It’s like a good marriage. Both parties get what they need from it but neither party actually owns it. Traditionally, the brand manager had sole discretion for the direction the brand would take. How would it grow? What should it do next? Etc. After decades of doing business that way, it’s natural for business leaders to feel like they own their brand. But they never really did.

Powered by an array of Internet tools, markets these days are flexing newly developed muscles to show that they have some control over the brand relationship as well. We know that consumers can rate businesses and employers online now through sites like Yelp and Glassdoor. We’ve seen that they can organize boycotts and “cancel” organizations of which they disapprove.

But markets can have positive effects on brands too, if only CEOs would let them. George Lucas is a phenomenally successful film maker. His production company, Lucasfilm, Ltd., built an incredibly strong brand around the Star Wars franchise. The ardent fans of that science fiction fantasy are legion, and are known for their intense dedication to it. It’s a brand that would make Coca-Cola jealous. There was only one problem.

It takes time to make a movie, especially one on a scale like a Star Wars film. And Star Wars fans can’t wait that long. They hunger for new content every day. So they started taking matters into their own hands. They dress up as Star Wars characters and hold their own meetings and conventions. They started writing their own scripts. They “improved” the Star Wars logo. They created illustrations of favorite scenes and characters. They created graphic novels and animations taking the Star Wars saga into new directions. They even wrote and starred in their own unofficial Star Wars short films. And they shared everything on the Internet.

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To a traditional brand management team, this was a nightmare. None of these creators were following the branding guidelines or even knew they existed. Most of the work was of terrible quality. Everything ran afoul of the first dictum of copyright law: never confuse the market. And Lucasfilm couldn’t make it stop. Their market had seized control of the brand relationship and was running amok with it.

First, Lucasfilm tried legal action or, at least, the threat of it. But they soon realized the futility of sending out of cease-and-desist letters to hundreds of penniless teens who didn’t get what the big fuss was about. So Lucasfilm started to relax. Their next move was to just let it happen while emphasizing that nothing the fans were doing was “official” Star Wars content. But there was still a very real division between the management of the Star Wars brand and the fans.

At some point, Lucasfilm must have decided either to take an if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them attitude, or they woke up to the fact that this was, indeed, a marriage that needed saving. They started putting some effort into the relationship.

Eventually, when Disney bought the Star Wars franchise from Lucasfilm, they purchased a healthy brand. The brand relationship was supported by both sides. Fans have portals now where they can submit ideas, where their meetings are sponsored, and where they can enter their mostly terrible illustrations into official art contests. Everybody’s happy and the brand is more valuable than ever.

This goes to show that it’s not necessarily a bad thing if your market starts to exert influence on the brand relationship. In fact, it’s probably a good thing. It shows that your market cares about the brand. It shows your “spouse” is interested in you. This is the time to reach out to your market and show you’re interested too. Listen to your customers. Find out what they need and find a way to give it to them. In some cases, loosening your grip on the brand is what makes the brand stronger.


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