A brand is a promise, a social contract, an implied guarantee, a reducer of risk. However, all that presupposes that a brand is centered on a positive experience (or the promise of one).

Psychologically brands are emotional reactions toward these expectations, be they repeat or first-time. Emotional reactions are formed over the short- or long-term depending on the circumstances, but are generally long-lasting in either case. However, they are not always positive.

Therefore, I believe that because both positive and negative emotions  toward expectations exist, positive and negative brands must exist as well. Having a brand does not mean you have succeeded, it means you’ve succeeded or failed rather well—nothing in-between.

Riffing off the idea of the net promoter/detractor continuum, I think of brands the following way:

Think of laundry detergent. You have thirty choices, but will typically prefer one over all others, and if that one is not available you may decide to go with a fallback choice as a last resort. And there may be one choice that you will always avoid, even if it’s the last bottle left on the shelf. The rest of the choices are neutral, meaning they are not brands, as you have no feelings about them. Brand, by definition, is therefore a personal experience.

The brand, and your emotional attitude toward it, is a mix of personal and external influences, typically not within the control of the brand owner—actually, you are the brand owner; the originator is the brand steward. How you react toward a brand decides whether it’s a positive or negative brand. Past experience matters a lot, but so does testimony from your peer group (family, friends, colleagues), and trusted third-party advisor (e.g., Consumer Reports) when approaching a first-time experience.

Since brand loyalty is more easily lost than won, brand stewards have to have a deep understanding of the motivations and emotions for being a choice, lest they wish to run risk of sitting on a negative brand at any point in time.

If I have a negative reaction at the thought of you or your product (U.S. Airways, Cox, Sucralose), you have/are a negative brand with me.

Where the net promoter/detractor concept comes back into play is the ratio of positive vs. negative emotions toward you/your brand. It’s much more important to avoid creating negative experiences than it is creating positive ones. You can always work on improving yourself; it is nearly impossible to erase negative experiences and emotions, however.

Note that I don’t have to share my negative feelings about you with others—to damage you—to have a very negative impact on your business. Instead, many of us have the memory of an elephant and will abide by our positive and negative experiences for a long time. And while the customer definitely is not always right, be aware that you are continuously building a positive-negative brand ratio.

J.C. Penney has in a very short span of time managed to become a negative brand for many.