The Art of Imagery

Aaker's Book Explores How to Measure, Manage, Strategize and Strengthen Product Identities

by Gretchen Kell

How did companies such as Saturn, General Electric, Kodak and Harley Davidson create successful brands that have withstood time and often fierce competition?

In his new book, "Building Strong Brands" (The Free Press, 1996), David Aaker, a professor at the Haas School of Business, uses case studies on brand building to show how to create strong brand identities, manage extended systems of subbrands, develop brand equity measures and organize for brand building.

"A company's brand is the primary source of its competitive advantage and a valuable strategic asset," said Aaker, who is generally regarded as the world's leading academic authority on branding strategy. "Yet, too often, the brand message to customers is weak, confused, irrelevant or, worst of all, indistinguishable from competitor offerings.

"The challenge for all brands is that they have a distinct, clear image that matters to customers and truly differentiates them from the rest."

The key step is to create a broad brand vision or identity that recognizes a brand as something greater than a set of attributes that can be imitated or surpassed. In particular, Aaker suggests that a company consider its brand not just as a product or service, but as an organization, a person and a symbol.

The brand-as-organization perspective focuses on the associations of the company's people, culture, programs and values--such as making a priority of innovation, a quality--or customer-focus, or leadership. Such organization associations are more endearing and more resistant to imitation by competitors than are product attributes.

"It is much easier to copy a product," said Aaker, "than to duplicate an organization with unique values, people and programs."

A brand personality can make a brand more interesting and memorable and can even become a vehicle to express a customer's identity. Thus, a Harley Davidson motorcycle rider "might feel more macho and freer of a confining job and its attendant lifestyle," said Aaker.

He added that "a brand without a personality, not unlike a person, lacks friends and may be easily overlooked."

A strong symbol also can provide cohesion and structure to a brand identity, making it more recognizable and easier to recall. Ronald McDonald House, the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Mercedes-Benz emblem all make their brands richer and stronger.

Aaker also said brand strategists should create not only a core identity--the timeless essence of a brand--but an extended identity, which "fills in the picture, adding details that help portray what the brand should stand for." Saturn's core identity, for example, is an extraordinary quality created by an organization that treats the customer as a respected friend. That identity includes the product itself; the no-pressure feel of the retail experience; the no-haggle pricing; the "A different kind of company, a different kind of car" slogan; and the brand personality.

Marketing strategists also must think in terms of systems of brands and subbrands rather than simply managing individual brands, said Aaker. "Brands do not exist in isolation," he said, "but rather relate to other brands within the system."

Citing the branding systems of companies as diverse as General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, Marriott and Nestlé, Aaker shows how brands, subbrands and branded services and features can work together to create synergy and clarity. "Managing multiple brands is not easy," Aaker said. "GM has 33 automobile brand names, including seven for Buick alone."

"Inconsistent or 'cross-purposes' execution within a company's branding system can be destructive," he said.

On the other hand, "Building Strong Brands" also explains the power of a "silver bullet" to advance not only a brand's image, but also that of an entire company.

"E&J Varietals elevated the image of Gallo Wines across the board. The Taurus helped create Ford's modern reputation for quality, style and originality," he said. "And the Sharks have transformed San Jose."

Aaker is the author of more than 80 articles and 10 books, including "Managing Brand Equity" (The Free Press, 1991).


Copyright 1996, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
Comments? E-mail