Business needs to nurture the brand eco-system to stay relevant

Emeritus Professor Rod Brodie’s research looks at how businesses who fail to acknowledge how brands are co-created are headed for trouble.

Roderick Brodie
Rod Brodie's research had led to a brand eco-system framework.

Disneyland. Say the word to a 10-year-old and Disneyland is as self-described, ‘the happiest place on earth’. If you are one of the 5000 employees who took part in a survey on living conditions in 2018, Disneyland elicits the opposite emotion.

Eleven per cent reported experiencing homelessness and 73 per cent said they did not earn enough to pay basic living expenses. The same goes for the 32,000 employees who voted no to Disney’s offer of a $1/hr pay rise in early 2023, seeking a living wage for the 75 per cent of staff who earn $15/hr.

Last, but not least is Abigail Disney, the granddaughter of Walt’s brother Roy Disney. For some years, the heir has been resolutely taking to task the company her uncle and father founded. In 2019, she tweeted about the ‘naked indecency’ of Disney CEO Bob Iger’s $65.6m a year compensation.

In support of better wages for staff she told news outlets, “Bob needs to understand he’s an employee, just the same as the people scrubbing gum off the sidewalk. And they’re entitled to all the same dignity and human rights that he is.”

How can the ‘happiest place on earth’ also be the source of such misery and discontent? The question lies at the heart of Rod Brodie’s research. He has led teams on foundational research offering better understanding of how brands sit in society and how and why brands succeed or fail. “The brand really does sit at the heart of the business, it’s how the business creates value,” he says.

Brodie, an emeritus professor in the Business School at Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland, is a pioneer in understanding the implications of branding and customer engagement. The papers he has worked on with international co-authors are highly cited because the ramifications extend far beyond the boundaries of business. His work has influenced the work of economists, psychologists, and others under the broad umbrella of the social sciences.

Brands, arising from what was once seen as a mere registered trademark, have evolved in meaning and value. There was the managerial perspective, where a brand is ‘a promise of the bundle of attributes that someone buys’ to being cast as a value proposition where it was defined as ‘an invitation from actors to one another to engage in service’ to a social sciences lens where brands trigger continual co-creation of meaning by a diverse range of communities and the business.

Kids at Disneyland.
Has the Disney company managed its brand well?

A brand is no longer a trademark, but more an ever-changing interactive confluence of perception, value, emotion and trust.

Brodie, “The fundamental thing we need to do is break free from the shackles of the dyad, the idea of a very strong seller and a passive buyer.” A brand is no longer a trademark, but more an ever-changing interactive confluence of perception, value, emotion and trust. The job for brand managers and chief executives is to navigate a moving feast of opportunity and risk.

Take the rise and rise of the Black Ferns. From a barely-known team, the Black Ferns march to World Cup victory turned them into new heroes and role models for the New Zealand public. Brodie says, “What’s happened there is like an iceberg. The tip is what’s visible, their games, their interviews in media. But below the water are all these complex social processes.

"People aren’t just fans. They have participated in a process, where people are talking about the team, watching their games, reading about the team and their individual stories and collective presence. By doing this the public has co-created new meanings. All these things are going on and then what happens is it becomes a very strong brand through all these social processes.”

The sheer complexity of brand co-creation is confounding. Brodie and his colleagues’ response is the development of a framework to capture the social and cultural meanings at each level they take place. Their paper refers to this as a framework to ‘clarify how brand meaning evolves as an emergent property on multiple levels of a brand’s service ecosystem.’ While attempts at this have been made before, Brodie argues that these have come from a managerial perspective whereas the co-creation of meaning reflects the thoughts and actions of a multitude of ‘actors,’ engaging with the brand.

The Black Ferns are World Champions who have brought the public on their journey. NZ Herald

The framework has five levels. First comes the lower-micro: the individual, whether a worker, manager or customer. Here brand identity is shaped by wants and needs, how the brand is understood at an intellectual and emotive level, guided in term of values and personal preferences.

The second, called the Upper Micro, is the domain of teams, either within the organisation or in families or groups of friends. The third, the Lower-meso comprises the relations organisations build with suppliers, distributors, customers and communities.

The fourth is the Upper-meso level where strategy resides. What is the market position and perception, where are the alliances, what standards and regulations need to be abided by and what are the main partnerships, with unions, collectives and the like? The fifth is the Macro-level, where the business or organisation is granted a social licence to function. How does the business sit in relation to wider society, government and the media.

Brodie says it is up to the brand owners, the chief executive and Board to ensure that at each level the behaviour of the brand meets the promise of the business. In Disney’s case, aspiring to be ‘the happiest place on earth.’

None of this is easy, he says, and potentially might be impossible to fully achieve. However, by working towards alignment of promise and action at each level, the result will be a meaningful and resilient brand better placed to survive external disturbance and every present risks to its reputation.

Brodie nominates Patagonia, the outdoor clothing and equipment company as coming close to the ideal. Patagonia has a bold promise, “We’re in business to save our home planet.” Employees benefit from profit sharing, enjoy paid leave to support environmental projects and their products are consciously designed to cause no unnecessary harm to the planet.

The company offers transparency about its suppliers and those suppliers need to abide by a joint code of conduct with policies against forced labour and in support of fair pay, health and safety standards and animal welfare. Multinational corporations exercise more power than some nations. How they operate is vitally important for the rest of us.

For New Zealand chief executives, Brodie’s advice is simple. “You can think of a brand as an entity, and we could say that makes it a noun, but we think of a brand as verb. The branding is what really leads to value. It’s what you do with it. It’s very much about thinking about and managing all the processes and roles that brands have.”

Every business needs to have a clear identity in the market, but true value resides with the co-creation of the myriad meanings associated with the brand.

Hīkina kia Tutuki, Rise to meet the challenge

Emeritus Professor Rod Brodie is one of six researchers from Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland who is a Clarivate 2022 Highly Cited Researcher.

The Highly Cited Researchers list comprises researchers who have published papers that rank in the top one per cent of citations in their field. There are 18 New Zealand researchers on the 2022 list, out of a 2022 global total of 6938.

Story: Gilbert Wong

Mātātaki | The Challenge is a continuing series from the University of Auckland about how our researchers tackle some of the world's biggest challenges. Challenge articles are available for republication.

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Gilbert Wong | Research Communications manager