Sunday, August 17, 2008

Who Owns This Brand, Anyway? Olive Garden and Burger King Find Out

Several years ago, I had an argument with a principal at a design agency about who "owns" the brand. He asserted brands are owned by the corporations that develop and manage them. He was legally correct of course--brands are intellectual property in the possession of a legal "owner."

I disagreed with my peer. Brands aren't hard assets with intrinsic values, but instead derive all of their value from the perceptions contained within the minds of consumers. A brand owner can decide to change the brand message, but unless consumers validate the change, it does not happen. A brand perceived by consumers as a value brand can advertise it is a premium brand until the cows come home, but if consumers don't internalize the new message, then the brand hasn't initiated any change at all; it's just wasted its marketing budget.

Legal ownership provides certain benefits but imparts little control. Managing a brand is like the proverbial herding of cats--it's about influence and not command. Particularly in the era of social media, brands must strive to exert more influence with less control as the voice of the consumer becomes a greater part of the marketing environment.

Two restaurant brands are struggling with different but similar challenges. Both are being brandjacked by individuals who--through celebrity or social media notoriety--are altering consumer opinion of the brand against the wishes of the legal brand owners.

The first brand is Olive Garden, which faces a challenge from a person who may be its most famous, vocal, and voluptuous fan. As noted in the Wall Street Journal, Kendra Wilkinson, famed Playboy cover model and star of the "Girls Next Door," frequently professes deep love for the Olive Garden.

The brand, which spends molto dollars polishing its family image, finds it can do little to combat the activities of a single soft porn star who once launched a nude modeling competition for attractive Olive Garden waitresses. Trying to clamp down on brand champions can have an extremely detrimental effect if the passionate praise turns to passionate anger. Much like former smokers who become the most ardent anti-smoking advocates, a disappointed and rejected brand ambassador can become an even worse nightmare for brand managers.

So, Olive Garden is doing little to alter Kendra's activities, and this is a wise decision. The restaurant chain won't comment on the unwelcome attention, and an exec at their ad agency says, "I don't feel comfortable talking about this...because it is a complicated issue for the brand." For her part, Kendra doesn't recognize a problem: "I understand they're a family restaurant, but I think it can't hurt them to have a little spice."

The second restaurant chain facing the loss of brand control to a single individual is Burger King. This past week, a video appeared online that shows an employee bathing in a kitchen sink at a Xenia, Ohio Burger King. The video shows a store manager and several employees looking on.

The impact of this one little video? All the employees lost their jobs; the restaurant got a visit from the Greene County Health Commissioner; over 350,000 people viewed the videos on YouTube in the first four days; the story has been broadcast by all major news outlets including Associated Press, the LA Times, FOXNews, and USA Today; and over half the mentions of Burger King on Twitter in the past two days referenced the sink incident.

This single incident won't bring the Burger King brand to its knees, but one employee's four-minute bath will likely cost the brand six figures in lost sales, wasted executive time, agency fees to fashion a PR response, communication to appease irate franchisees, energy to rehire staff and correct the problems in Xenia, and efforts to retrain employees throughout the system. Owning the Burger King brand doesn't protect the company from the costs and damages inflicted by this incident; it obligates the company to take the necessary actions to protect its most valuable asset.

With Social Media increasing the voice of the consumer, the lack of brand control will only become more evident in the coming years. Understanding what can be controlled (such as your hiring and training of employees and response to PR incidents) and what can only be influenced (consumer opinion) will help brands navigate the sometimes choppy waters of Social Media.

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