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A headline in Scientific American about "cold dark matter" recently caught my eye. As it turns out, 50 to 60 years of professional stargazing has led to a theory that 90 percent of the matter in the universe is "missing." Or less dramatically stated, it's out there somewhere, but emits no discernable energy, so we don't know where it is.

As I pondered this notion in my not-quite-immaculate office, I felt a slight sense of relief. After all, how bad can an office be, given that scientists have misplaced 90 percent of the universe? Relief was pursued by concern whether I should alert the astronomical authorities that some of the missing matter might be hiding under my pile of books. I came away, though, with a feeling that there is an analogy here that marketers should contemplate.

The astronomers have their cold dark matter theory - and marketers have "brand equity." The analogy isn't perfect - brands certainly emit energy when firms like Nabisco and General Foods trade hands for more than three times their book value.

Still, a question worth pondering is whether corporate brands are more like the shining stars or the cold dark matter of the universe - out there somewhere, but emitting no discernable energy.

The question seems timely based on two problems facing agrimarketers. First is the question of how to wrap a brand strategy around the World Wide Web. Corporations offering multiple products in a marketplace feel compelled to link representations of these products together in a corporate site. But how a "corporate" Web site can represent a value that is greater than the sum of the sales portfolio remains an ongoing challenge - especially in sectors where manufacturers rely heavily on third-party distribution. For organizations that have spent the past several decades creating value perceptions at the level of individual products, this can be as much a problem of structure as it is a problem of strategy.

A second and even more ubiquitous issue is the trend of accelerating market maturation for ag products. Like other technology-driven sectors, agribusiness is caught up in a trend of faster product life cycles from introduction to exit. If you're marketing veterinary medicines, feed additives, herbicides or seeds, you can expect your products to have fewer years in the marketplace to recoup their product development investments before profit margins erode in the face of competition from newer products, generics, and the occasional gust of unsympathetic global regulatory sentiment.

True, shortening product life cycles may be a reason to invest more aggressively in product branding - especially at launch. Still, if product brands in agribusiness are trending towards shorter life spans, it begs the question whether marketing energy shouldn't be redistributed with greater emphasis on building the corporate brand.

How can you excite your corporate brand from "cold dark matter" to a shining star that illuminates your business prospects and profits?

1. Have a "things we do that suck" list. Invite people to add items. Prioritize the ones to tackle first.

2. Think about how the value chain of your industry is evolving. Is your share of total industry profits likely to shrink or grow in the future? If the former, what is your company planning to do about it?

3. Ask yourself Theodore Levitt's famous question: "What business are you in?" Then ask "Why is that important?" and "to whom?"

4. Take your brand attributes and reframe them in terms of customer experience. For instance, if your organization is credited with a distinguishing degree of integrity in its dealings, you might want to reframe that attribute in terms of the trust people feel when dealing with you. (Keep in mind, once you start down the road of thinking of your brand in terms of experience, you need to be realistic in what you can deliver, strategic in what you claim, and focused in who you aim it towards.)

5. Look for "sacred cow" ideas that sit unchallenged and get in the way of actually delivering on your brand attributes. Ask yourself: "What are the differences between customers that make a difference?" Then look at the market segmentation model implicit in your strategies and organizational structure. See if they match. Have a barbecue.

6. Ask yourself whether your company's Web site serves your customers, or your product managers. Whom should it serve?

7. Build the kind of relationships that give your external advisors permission to share a valuable asset with you - an informed external perspective on your business.

You may think there's a lot of work outlined in this list. You're right. This list is not a recipe or catalog of all the things you should do to grow the equity in your corporate brand, but rather starting points I've observed for positive improvements in the relationship between corporate brands and customers. Maybe one of these could help you uncover some hidden light in your corporate brand. AM

Glen Drummond helps clients with brand experience integration for Quarry Integrated Communications, Waterloo, Ontario.

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