Last week I attended BtoB Magazine’s “The Evolving B2B Purchase Process: Conquering Unpredictability with Full-Funnel Marketing” webinar. Very interesting research findings were presented, and the Q&A was excellent.

The last question in the Q&A drove me crazy, however: Where and how do we begin our marketing efforts for “…a relatively new brand with no awareness?”

It wasn’t the content of the question that bothered me—and the answer was very good—it’s the context that gave me palpitations, and almost caused me to scream “YOU DON’T HAVE A BRAND!” into my headset. Of course, in cyberspace no one can hear you scream, especially when you are on mute.

I hold in strong belief—and have previously stated here—that brands are not “made” nor “owned” by companies, but by consumers. Companies may own trademarks, but branding is a consumer’s mental process. Companies try to influence this process, yet ultimately they have no true control over it. Correlation of a consumer action to a marketer’s efforts does not equal its causation.

I’ve never been able to prove my belief. Finally, however, I happened upon a model that echoes my own conviction: McCracken’s Meaning Transfer Model.

In “Who is the Celebrity Endorser? Cultural Foundations of the Endorsement Process” (Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Dec., 1989), pp. 310-321; available on JSTOR), McCracken stipulates that “there is a conventional path for the movement of cultural meaning in consumer societies.”

While the article speaks to celebrity endorsements—how a personality imbues its persona onto a product—the model’s underpinnings rest on “cultural foundations” (read: psychology) shared by all of us (in the West).

There are three steps in the model. First, to pick the right celebrity “the advertiser identifies the cultural meanings intended for the product.” This speaks to product positioning—not tactically (conventional benefits) or strategically (competitive benefits), but psychologically. Think BMW’s “Ultimate Driving Machine,” versus Volvo’s safety and security positioning. Both are cars that will get you to where you want to go, but their positioning appeals to different audiences. This is where companies place their marketing chips for decades.

Next, “the advertiser surveys the culturally constituted world for the objects, persons, and contexts that already contain and give voice to these mednings.” The producer/advertiser seeks an individual/celebrity possessing elements congruent with the psychological profile they are trying to assign to their product. The advertiser similarly hopes that aspiration to these traits is resident within the target buyer. For example, Sebastian Vettel might be a good celebrity endorser for the Ultimate Driving Machine. For our purpose the object does not have to be a celebrity, but can be anything else that already carries the intended strong metaphorical meaning. Granite, for example, can represent the foundational financial strength that a bank wishes to emphasize.

Third, “the final act of meaning transfer is performed by the consumer, who must glimpse in a moment of recognition an essential similarity between the elements and the product in the ad…Consumers turn to their goods not only as bundles of utility with which to serve functions and satisfy needs, but also as bundles of meaning with which to fashion who they are and the world in which they live (Belk 1988).”

Just in case you didn’t catch that, while the meaning transfer steps are linear and sequential, 1-2-3, the meaning transfer motion is not. Meaning is not transferred from the producer into the product, and then from the product to the consumer. Consumers transfer their own meaning onto the product! The consumer has to be accepting and complicit in permitting the producer’s hoped for meaning—but the consumer may very simply attach an entirely unintended meaning, away from the producer’s intent. This is why consumer insights departments are so critical.

When consumers attach the same meaning repeatedly, and that action constitutes a preference over a product with similar tactical benefits, then brand-creation is in process, but not yet complete. A product is only a brand when it is chosen often enough, with high repetition, by a large number of people within the addressable target audience. Otherwise a product is just a commodity, regardless of price or positioning.

A good example of consumer brand ownership is Tropicana Orange Juice’s “rebranding” a few years back. A simple packaging change—the actual product inside the package had not changed—destroyed the meaning that consumers had themselves attached to the product. The updated look of the juice container was described as generic, and generic juice at a premium price was incongruent with consumers’ psychological needs. Ultimately, Tropicana was forced to retreat.

Most importantly, it means that companies must continuously research and learn why consumers are choosing their products, and then for the same product target the correctly personalized message at the right audience, in the right channel. Mixed messaging sends mixed signals that cause confusion and lead to brand erosion.

It also means that companies are not brand owners, they are brand stewards.