Should you measure Brand Equity or Customer Equity?

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.

Asia is the darling of luxury brands

As the effects of government stimuli wear off and with the global economy heading towards a double dip recession that will impact the traditionally wealthy economies of Europe, the US and Japan more than most, luxury brands have been looking to Asia for salvation. And they’ve probably found it.

Despite the recession, the consultants, Bain & Co predicts luxury industry sales of €158bn in 2010, up 4% after a drop of 8% in 2009. And these sales will, on the whole be driven by Asian operations.

25% of worldwide sales
Shiseido, Japan’s largest cosmetics company anticipates sales of high-end cosmetics to grow 20% a year in China over the next 3 years. In fact, China is driving the luxury business and is now the second largest market for luxury goods, accounting for 25% of worldwide luxury sales. More than the US, Europe and Japan who each account for about 20%.

According to Capgemini there are more than 345,000 Chinese millionaires and many of them are keen to snap up luxury products that offer a little bit of exclusivity and heritage.

India crucial for long term success
But the Chinese market is not the only market helping luxury brand ride out the recession(s). In India, Porsche Design recently opened its first store in New Delhi, joining Prada, Louis Vuitton, Ferragamo and Mont Blanc who are all setting up operations in the capital of the republic. Louis Vuitton now has 5 stores in India.

Luxury jewelry retailer Tiffany & Co reported recently that sales at Asian stores open more than 12 months, with the exception of those in Japan, rose 21% during its most recent quarter. The Asia-Pacific region is driving expansion, with stores scheduled to open in Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong.

China has the highest sales per square foot
Mainland China is at the heart of Tiffany’s Asian expansion, with the number of stores there due to rise from the current 12 to as many as 30 by 2015. Chinese stores have the highest sales per square foot of US$3,800 compared to US$3,000 in other stores.

French luxury giant Hermes reported strong growth in sales in the first quarter of 2010, boosted mainly by sales in Asia but not including Japan.

LVMH, the company behind luxury brands such as Dior, Louis Vuitton and Moët Chandon recently reported a 11% increase in 1Q 2010 sales. Watches and jewellery sales rose by 33%, wines and spirits by 18% and fashion and leather goods by 8%. Sales of Dom Perignon and other LVMH owned champagnes shot up by 33% in the same period.

Watches and timepieces, there is a difference you know, have also had a bumper start to 2010 and the mood at Baselworld, the world’s largest watch and jewellery fair, was bullish after positive announcements from Bréguet, Blancpain, Omega and Longines whose sales were up 46%, 48%, 50% and 49% respectively in January and February 2010.

Mobile phones
Due partly at least to the fact that it doesn’t have many high end high margin devices, Sony Ericsson has been plagued by declining sales for years and hasn’t made a net profit since 2Q 2008.

However the firm moved quickly to develop high end phones and launched the Xperia X10 and Vivaz last year. The result, the company reported a net profit for 1Q 2010 of €21 million, compared with a €293 million net loss a year earlier. Analysts were expecting a €128 million loss.

US leather goods maker Coach has relied for years on the domestic market and Japan. However, after a slow start, it is ramping up operations in Asia and expects sales in China to rise to US$250 million by 2012, up from almost US$100 million this year.

Luxury brands will have to make significant changes to the way they operate in Asia. And they must learn to understand Asian consumers, learn how to build relationships with them, what are their influencers and how best to engage them. If they, they will find salvation not in the short term, for some time to come.

Australia Unlimited. Genius or Garbage?

Someone sent me this link about the plans for the Australian government to use a new tagline to sell Australia Inc to the world.

I’m sure you guys have lots to say and I welcome your thoughts on the article. To get the ball rolling here are a couple of thought starters.

1) Australia Unlimited isn’t a brand, it is a tagline created by an advertising agency to be used in creative driven communications using one message to communicate with all stakeholders, irrespective of their requirements for value. The concept of selling ‘Australia to the world” is laughable as most of the world doesn’t care.

2) Here’s a clip from the article, “Shortlisted agencies were given a brief to ”come up with a brand that would promote Australia’s capabilities across a range of sectors from investments and exports to education, culture, sports and events”

How does “Australia Unlimited” do that? And how could any communications campaign appeal to such a diverse prospect base?

3) Here’s another quote from the article, “John Moore, director of brand development of the Global Brands Group, the agency that has been co-ordinating the new Sydney brand, likes the line. ”It takes it beyond tourism and poses the question of what is unlimited about Australia, to which there can be many answers. I think it will work really well as a connecting device with all those different areas [of trade and business].”

Excuse me? How does it do that? I want to set up a mining company in Australia, what can you do for me? That’s the only question I want to pose.

This is another iniative, involving 2 stakeholders, Tourism Australia and Austrade, who should be working together but in fact appear almost to be competing with each other!

Retention is key. Low cost carriers must learn from the mistakes of legacy carriers

The legendary Peter Drucker said it best: “The purpose of business is not to make a sale but to make and keep a customer”. This is what branding is about. It’s not about aquisition, it’s about retention. And the airline industry, and in particular, Low Cost Carriers (LCCs) need to realise this soon otherwise they will find it tough to build brands that can compete, long term with the mighty legacy carriers with their frequent flyer programmes, multiple classes, business lounges, inflight entertainment and gourmet food (well some of them).

Most of the LCCs have a price based offering. Being small, they are nimble and more efficient than their lumbering competitors. These young, brash and determined airlines, often helmed by charismatic individuals with little industry experience have ripped up the industry manuals and replaced them with revolutionary business models that charge consumers for peanuts, coffee, noodles, seats, luggage and most recently in the case of Air Asia, a ‘convenience fee’.

According to an official response from the airline to an indignant passenger, this ‘convenience fee’ is “meant to recover costs in implementing, upgrading and maintaining our online payment systems. It is also to enhance security features for credit card payments to give guests a comfortable and safe booking environment.”

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this response, available here in full on came from one of those stuffy legacy carriers mentioned earlier. You’d be forgiven too for scoffing at the line, “give guests a comfortable booking environment”. How does charging me more make me more comfortable? You’d also be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the online payment system wasn’t good in the first place and wondering what the implications of that might be.

In the past most airlines, including Air Asia, would have absorbed these costs. I quote again, “However, now that AirAsia is experiencing a rapidly growing number of online transactions, these costs have significantly increased.”

The official response to the complaint goes on to say, “This convenience fee is charged on a per way per guest basis because the costs of these systems are driven by the value of the transaction rather than by the number of transactions. As costs vary per country, the convenience fee also varies.”

The whole process has been dealt with in a manner more suited to one of the aging behemoths than such a young, aggressive and savvy carrier. To me it says that because you, the customer have helped us grow so fast, we’d like to reward you by charging you to use our online booking service. Even though it is automated and therefore doesn’t require the ongoing investment in real estate and talent that a booking office requires, we’re going to make you, the customer pay for it.

The danger here is that Air Asia is making a common legacy carrier, or perhaps I can call it legacy branding, mistake. It is treating passengers as if they are insignificant seat fillers and it is assuming that all passengers are the same, don’t have options and will put up with being treated badly. Irrespective of whether it is the first or fifty first time the passenger is using the airline.

Surely, if a passenger is a long time user of the airline, there will be significant personal data available (and Air Asia offers customers the opportunity to submit a lot of personal, travel and other information) and multiple transactions with that customer mean that the liklihood of fraud is low, should that passenger be treated, and charged, the same as a new customer? And anyway, the burden of fraud is with the Credit Card company and not the carrier, which is why it is the Credit Card company that sometimes calls after you use the card to make a booking.

Unfortunately, because the prevaling attitude in most agencies (and companies) is that acquisition is key, the typical response is yes. And it would seem, based on this episode, that Air Asia agrees with this attitude.

However, FusionBrand has long argued that retention is key to brand building. Although LCC’s have thrown some traditional branding theories out the window with their price driven strategies, you cannot build a long term profitable brand, on acquisition alone. Indeed, a low price strategy that aims to ‘buy’ loyalty can often encourage only disloyalty. That’s because a price driven customer is always looking for a cheaper alternative. And, in the LCC space, will often find it.

This is substantiated in a survey carried out by Sabre Airline Solutions, which found that 86% of airlines believe that customer loyalty and retention will have the most positive impact on their business in 2010.

So my advice to Air Asia and other LCCs is that if you want to become a brand, you must start treating customers with more respect, understand that a low price alone will not build relationships, think carefully about how you communicate with your passengers and remember that the purpose of business is not to make a sale but to make and keep a customer.

Does Air Asia need to be a brand?

Whenever I find a brand that matches its offerings to my requirements for value, I become not only a brand loyalist but also a brand ambassador. For years I was a Marco Polo member and sang the praises of Cathay Pacific to anyone who would listen. Then about 15 years ago I moved to Malaysia. Initially I flew Cathay, even though it meant going in the completely opposite direction to Hong Kong to pick up a connecting flight to Europe. But after a while, probably around the same time as I had run out of miles and therefore could no longer get an upgrade, I looked around for someone else to build a relationship with. The obvious choice was Singapore Airlines and I dabbled for a while but the hassle of changing flights in Changi and the extra 3 – 8 hours that added to my return trip meant this wasn’t really an option.

Next I tried BA for a while but they were in the process of pulling out of Malaysia so the only other option was Malaysian Airlines. I was reluctant, really reluctant for a number of reasons. MAS was horribly managed or rather mismanaged at the time. Safety was an issue, coffee shop talk was negative, morale was at an all time low, rumours of imminent sabotage were rife and the numbers suggested a severe crisis was due. But by then I had no choice as MAS was the only airline flying directly to London.

It was a gradual process but in the first year I flew a lot of domestic and international miles. I learnt the system and was able to get the best out of the airline which allowed me to experience all classes. It wasn’t so bad and by the end of the year, I was a Malaysia Airlines loyalist.

When AirAsia arrived I dismissed it as a little upstart, out of it’s league and destined to go the way of Pelangi Air and many others. The LCC model wasn’t something I believed in. Since when was travel no more than stuffing as many bodies as possible into the smallest plane that could fly the distance required? But a couple of years later I had to fly to Macau and the only flight that matched my schedule was an AirAsia flight. I swallowed my pride, apologised under my breath to the MAS 747 taxiing past the terminal and boarded the brand new Airbus, so crisp, clean and shiny compared to the 25 year old MAS Boeings and their tired interiors.

As I boarded, I was greeted by a smiling face and enthusiastic personalities that was contagious and impossible not to like, especially compared to the glum and tired looking MAS crews. Since that December day in 2007, I’ve become a regular AirAsia customer but every time I chose AirAsia, my choices are made based on price – RM680 for my wife and I to fly to Singapore and back compared to RM1710 on MAS and so on. I justify delays by reminding myself of the price and the savings. I reluctantly accept the fact that I have to pay (more and more) to check in a suitcase. I bite my tongue at the instructions that say I cannot take my own drinks on board. And this is key, I don’t have a relationship with AirAsia. And with the exception of 2 trips where I flew the night before a meeting, none of the trips have been time sensitive. To me it’s simply buying a commodity. Perhaps this is the way the business of flying is headed. Perhaps LCCs are the new legacy carriers and this is how all flying will be.

If this is the case, then fine. But how does a LCC like AirAsia build brand loyalty and the far more profitable repeat business critical to brand building? I’m fortunate in that I’ve not been subjected to one of the delays just about everyone I know has been subjected to when flying AirAsia. But when I do, I’ll immediately look at the other LCCs plying the same routes and I will switch in a heartbeat. As far as I am concerned, there is no brand loyalty with AirAsia. So essentially, the company model is based on the hope that there will be enough demand enough of the time on enough of the routes. If this is the case, then AirAsia doesn’t need to be a brand.

Perhaps this is enough for the aviation business to survive, and perhaps thrive. But judging by the LCCs in the US, I doubt it. What do you think?