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For practitioners, integrated marketing communication (IMC) has (1) become widely accepted, (2) has pervaded various levels within the firm, and (3) has become an integral part of brand strategy that requires extensive brand development activities within the firm before beginning any external brand communications efforts. Regarding academics, Vargo and Lusch (2004) argued in a recent paper that marketing is evolving toward a dynamic and evolutionary process--one that is based on a service-centered view. In keeping with this evolution, Vargo and Lusch (2004) suggest that (1) IMC should replace diverse, limited-focus promotional tools, and (2) brand management should be used for initiating and maintaining a continuing dialogue with the customers and for enhancing relationships.
Kitchen et al. emphasize that "strategically oriented integrated brand communications can help businesses move forward in the highly competitive world of the 21st century" (2004, p. 28, italics added). For Schultz (1998), brands are central to this integrated marketing communication. Keller (1993) points out that customer-based brand equity emanates from the consumer's familiarity and strong, favorable associations with the brand. For Keller, "marketing communications represent the voice of a brand and the means by which companies can establish a dialogue with consumers concerning their product offerings" (2001, p. 823). That is, marketing communication may provide the means for developing strong, customer-based brand equity (Keller 2003). Furthermore, marketing communications help the firm in eliciting favorable responses from customers (Duncan and Moriarty 1998). Although a number of factors influence customer-based brand equity, including product, price, and distribution, in this paper, we focus on the influence of IMC on brand equity.
Recently, Kitchen et al. (2004) observed that IMC has evolved from being a mere "inside-out" device that brings promotional tools together to being a strategic process associated with brand management. Further, Naik and Raman note that IMC emphasizes "the benefits of harnessing synergy across multiple media to build brand equity of products and services" (2003, p. 375). In this paper, however, by taking the works of several researchers (e.g., Duncan and Moriarty 1998; Jap 1999; Reid 2003), we conceptualize interactivity, strategic consistency, and complementarity as synergy constructs. Therefore, noting the intricate relationship between IMC and brand management, this paper aims to explore IMC as an integral part of a firm's overall brand equity strategy.
But what is a brand equity strategy? Hunt notes, "the fundamental thesis of brand equity strategy is that, to achieve competitive advantage and, thereby, superior financial performance, firms should acquire, develop, nurture, and leverage an effectiveness-enhancing portfolio of brands" (forthcoming). Analogously, we define brand equity strategy as a set of processes that include acquiring, developing, nurturing, and leveraging an effectiveness-enhancing, high-equity brand or portfolio of brands. By high equity, following Keller's (1993) definition of customer-based brand equity, we mean the strong and highly favorable brand associations of customers. Keller (1993) defines brand equity as the differential effect of brand knowledge on consumer response to the marketing of the brand and suggests brand awareness and brand image as the constructs related to customer-based brand equity.
Keller (2003) notes that the firm's marketing communications contribute to brand equity. That is, effective communication enables the formations of brand awareness and a positive brand image. These then form the brand knowledge structures, which, in turn, trigger the differentiated responses that constitute brand equity. Following Schultz (2004a), we define IMC strategy as a set of processes that include the planning, development, execution, and evaluation of coordinated, measurable, persuasive brand communications programs over time with consumers, customers, prospects, employees, associates, and other targeted, relevant external and internal audiences. Therefore, effective IMC is an integral part of an effective brand equity strategy. Furthermore, effective IMC potentially enhances the effectiveness of the firm's portfolio of brands, and hence, could positively influence brand equity.
Recently, a shift was observed in the branding literature (de Chernatony 1999) from a singular focus on the importance of brand image, or consumers' perceptions of brand differentiation, to include a focus on brand identity (Aaker 1996; Kapferer 1997; Keller 2003; Upshaw 1995). Though multiple conceptualizations of brand identity exist, this paper uses Aaker's (1996) conceptualization; that is, brand identity is seen as a unique set of brand associations that a brand strategist aspires to create or maintain. Further, we define brand identity strategy as a set of processes that include the coordinated efforts of the brand strategists in (1) developing, evaluating, and maintaining the brand identity/identities, and (2) communicating the brand identity/identities to all individuals and groups (internal and external to the firms) responsible for the firm's marketing communications. This paper proposes that an effective brand identity strategy informs, guides, and helps to develop, nurture, and implement the firm's overall IMC strategy, which in turn contributes to the firm's brand equity.
Over the last two decades, marketing researchers, to varying degrees, have focused on and studied IMC, brand equity, and brand identity. While the three streams of research do cross-reference each other, no research study has explicitly conceptualized any specific relationships among the three concepts. This paper argues that IMC strategy is essential to the firm's strategic brand management and that it strengthens the interface between the firm's brand identity strategy and its customer-based brand equity, that is, brand awareness and brand image. Specifically, this paper argues that IMC strategy and brand identity strategy are critical components of the firm's overall brand equity strategy. The firm's brand identity strategy forms the basis for the firm's overall IMC strategy and, hence, contributes to the firm's brand equity.
Specifically, we propose a conceptual model of brand equity in which the aspirational brand identity guides IMC in an effort to develop and maintain customer-based brand equity. The essence of this brand equity strategy is that by clearly and consistently communicating the brand identity to other brand stewards, the brand strategist can ensure a more synergistic and effective IMC. This, in turn, leads to stronger customer-based brand equity. An ideal outcome of such a strategy would be a consumer-held brand image that is congruent with the strategist's intended brand identity.
EVOLUTION OF IMC
In the past decade, IMC as a research area has generated a lot of debate, led to intellectual discourse, and overall, has contributed to the evolution of IMC as a strategic tool that can help firms to be more effective in realizing their brand communication goals. Given (1) the explosive growth of new electronic media (Bezjian-Avery, Calder, and Iacobucci 1998), (2) the numerous and diverse means of communication and communication options (Keller 2001), (3) the speed, span, and reach of electronic communication, which is driving firms to adopt a global perspective (Kitchen and Schultz 2003), and (4) the rapidly changing advertising environment (Gould 2004), IMC theory and practice has grown and evolved. This section provides a brief overview of the evolution of IMC (as shown in Table 1) in terms of (1) its conceptual development, (2) its strategic role in brand equity, and (3) its importance as a major communications development.
IMC has a come a long way …