Consumers Own the Brand

Marketers sometimes may think that companies own the brands that they promote, but in fact, brand ownership lies with the customer as it is in the minds of consumers where our brands truly live.

It’s important for you to understand that brands live in consumers’ minds as a set of beliefs and associations. Coca-Cola’s secret formula may live inside a bank vault in Atlanta, but the Coca-Cola brand does not. It exists in the form of images, commercial jingles and associations that consumers carry around with them in their heads.

An example of how much a brand might differ from what we expect and intend and how we think of it is the Chrysler PT Cruiser. You may not realize it, but the automobile company built the PT Cruiser by essentially putting a different body on top of the existing Plymouth Neon.

The PT Cruiser is essentially made from 90 percent of the same parts used to make the Plymouth Neon, but it looks completely different to consumers. A consumer has every reason to think the PT Cruiser is different than the Plymouth Neon. They are priced and positioned differently, and different customers value one model over the other. This underscores the fact that what customers believe about a car has everything to do with what they think about its appearance and the way it is marketed. They don’t necessarily need to be concerned about what specific parts went into making the vehicle.

Another interesting aspect of the PT Cruiser example is that when Chrysler created its positioning statement, it discussed who the target market was, what attributes people would be thinking about and how the car would benefit them. Chrysler thought that the PT Cruiser would be attractive to young families and anyone else who was in the market for a minivan or a slightly larger car, but not a small hatchback. The company reasoned this way because the Cruiser is bigger than a hatchback and had plenty of storage space.

However, this was not the audience who was actually buying the PT Cruiser, and consumers were not viewing the vehicle the same way Chrysler did. It turned out that older consumers liked the PT Cruiser for its retro style, as it reminded them of the cars of their childhood during the 1950s and 1960s. Driving around in a PT Cruiser helped remind consumers of the fun they had in their youth, and this was a big sales motivator.

The result is a very strong brand, with 100,000 to 150,000 cars selling every year at a $4,000 premium over the Neon. Chrysler’s design and marketing was a direct cause for this success, but the brand was in consumers’ minds. What customers understood and the associations they had with the PT Cruiser were not the ones initially intended by Chrysler.

Remember that brands are extremely valuable, but they exist not in the halls of a company but in the minds of consumers. Brands are not something that we own. They are things that we can only influence by developing a consistent strategy, set of messages and brand contacts in the minds of the consumers.


By Doug Stayman, Associate Dean for MBA Programs, Associate Professor of Marketing, Cornell University Johnson Graduate School of Management