Malaysian and Asian firms can save themselves a lot of effort and resources by focussing on customer equity as they attempt to build brands.
It’s almost 20 years since the launch of the landmark book “Managing Brand Equity: Capitalizing on the Value of a Brand Name” by David Aaker. David Aaker name may not be as familiar as others in his industry, but he is credited with developing the concept of “brand equity”.
The release of “Managing Brand Equity: Capitalizing on the Value of a Brand Name” came at a time when companies were desperately seeking new ways to increase the value of their brands by assigning a value to them or, measuring the intangible assets of the company such as reputation or channel relationships, that were previously ignored by traditional accounting systems. This became known as Brand equity.
On the face of it, “Brand equity” appeared to quantify intuitive recognition about the value of brands that in turn helped to rationalize marketing expenditures. It was also shorthand for a brand’s two key strengths – its relationship with purchasers and mental image among both prospects and customers. And it provided a means to rank winners and losers in branding wars – MAS vs Singapore Airlines, Maxis vs Celcom, Coca-Cola vs. Sarsi and so on.
Brand equity is now considered one of a number of factors that increase the financial value of a brand and the term is used freely to say the least. Nevertheless, despite its popularity, the concept of “brand equity” has numerous shortcomings, especially in an age when customers not organizations, are determining the success or failure of brands. Indeed, the pursuit of brand equity can even warp executive decision making and lead to lost profits and opportunities.
One shortcoming is that although the term is widely used, no common definition of brand equity exists.
In fact, in his book Building, Measuring and Managing Brand Equity, published about seven years after David Aaker’s work, K.L. Keller lists NINE definitions of Brand equity, some of which actually contradict one another. This lack of a definition means that no universally agreed upon measure exists.
Delve deeper into any methodology concerning a “brand equity” calculation, and it quickly becomes apparent that the effort has all the intellectual rigour of a fence post – a dash of corporate history, a gaggle of retail outlet numbers, a touch of stature here and some strength there, a little bit of ‘brand esteem’ topped off with an extra helping of distribution sales, a sampling of questionnaires and so on.
This lack of a common methodology means that two experts examining the same brand come up with widely divergent calculations. Furthermore, it is impossible to compare brands across different countries, industries or perspectives.
This imprecision – at a time of global economic uncertainty when shareholders are demanding more accountability and C level executives insist on both sophisticated measurement and accountability – means “brand equity” lacks validity as a benchmark for executive decision-making. After all, how can executives make effective decisions when it’s impossible to understand – and agree upon – consistent numbers?
As if C level executives didn’t have enough to think about, this imprecision causes other problems as well. If “brand equity” increases by 10%, what caused it? Was it the latest advertising campaign? Or was it a new product launch? Perhaps it was more aggressive sales? Or maybe it was the discounts at critical times to reduce inventory? Better service? “Brand equity” does not provide any insights about cause-and-effect.
Second, “brand equity” does not indicate market or financial success. Look at some companies with great “brand equity” – Pelangi Air, Perwaja steel, Port Klang Free Zone (PKFZ), Kodak, K-Mart, MV Augusta, MAS, – that have either disappeared, faced or are facing financial difficulties. Indeed, “brand equity” as a guiding star leads companies to focus on product maximization at a time when leading companies recognize that a focus on customers is critical to success.
Finally, and most important of all, “brand equity” is irrelevant to customers. Customers buy on value, service, price, convenience or other reasons, but never make a purchase decision based on the relative “brand equity” of two offerings.
Ask yourself, did you ever walk into Cold Storage, Armani or Isetan and buy something based on its brand equity? No, of course you didn’t. Hold that thought, why should you pay attention to an issue that customers ignore? Because everyone else is? Because you were told to in marketing classes that were probably developed in an era before Facebook, twitter, ecommerce and more?
So what should you focus on? The answer is “Customer equity”.
Customer equity has one universally recognized definition – the lifetime value of customers. This value results from the current and future customer profitability as well as such intangible benefits as testimonials and word-of-mouth sales.
Customer equity incorporates customer loyalty to buy again and again, the faith to recommend a brand and the willingness to forgive the inevitable mistakes that every firm makes.
While “brand equity” is impossible to calculate consistently, customer equity can be easily calculated on the back of an envelope. All that’s required are numbers that every company already is – or should be – calculating. These include revenue, customer acquisition (or marketing) costs, costs of goods/services and retention rates.
Ideally, depending on the industry, companies should also track leads and referrals, and be able to determine the profitability of specific products or services. By adding up revenue (or profits), subtracting relevant costs and incorporating retention rates, companies can determine the current – and future – profitability of every customer.
And because customer equity is easy to calculate, it will be understood by everyone from the boardroom to the warehouse, making it much easier to unify personnel behind the brand.
“Brand equity” is all about a product or an organization. But in the customer economy, brands that attempt to push products onto customers that don’t want them will fail. Even if you spend millions creating awareness of your products. Today, building a successful brand requires customers that are profitable.
Customer equity supports and measures the activities that encourage customers to buy more, more often. Increasing “brand equity” does little for a firm and decades of good will can be wiped out overnight (think BP), but increased customer equity reflects increased retention and word-of-mouth sales, key elements of a profitable brand.
Customer equity has other advantages as well. Because retention and customer profitability are tracked, it’s easy to make a direct link between marketing, service and other programs to increases (or declines) in customer equity.
Customer equity also enables the segmentation of very profitable, not so profitable and unprofitable customers. Knowing the relative profitability of customers not only helps promote retention of the best customers but also substantially improves the investment required and effectiveness of marketing as well as reducing marketing costs.
In today’s customer economy, “Brand equity” provides few if any tools for those responsible for attracting and keeping satisfied customers. In The Loyalty Effect, the author Frederick Reichheld wrote, “Customer equity effectively explains success and failure in business…. The companies with the highest retention rates also earn the best profits. Relative retention explains profits better than market share, scale, cost position or any other variables associated with competitive advantage.”
Do brands have value? Absolutely, and David Aaker has left an impressive legacy. But attempting to measure this value provides little benefit and distracts a company away from the critical task of retaining profitable customers.
Because ultimately, it’s these customers – not a fallible calculation of a dated concept – who are responsible for brand value and long-term corporate success.