The fate of brands is a topic of heated discussion these days. Some pundits say marketers need to relinquish control of their company's brand to their engaged consumers. They claim that consumers already have taken control through their use of social media, so why fight it? Others suggest that consumers can influence brand perception, but a company will always control its brand. I say the truth lies somewhere in between.A brand is a promise. Customer experience is the delivery of that promise. Elements of the customer experience--from marketing communications to purchase to service to the product itself, and everything else that it comprises--create the image a consumer has of a brand. The company, and its marketing team, controls the brand until this point in that they own the experiences the customer will have, for the most part. There are exceptions; airlines can't control the weather, but they can control the rebooking experience.
Ultimately, a company is in control of product quality, of the relevancy of marketing messages, of its service delivery. Those elements may be flawless or awful; it's up to the company.
Once a customer has some interaction with a brand--a purchase, a service call, a direct mail solicitation--he forms an opinion of that brand. Perception is reality, so control of the brand now lies with the customer in that what he thinks of the brand is his reality, whether that opinion may be correct or incorrect in the minds of others. That customer may share that opinion with one person or one million people, who may be influenced to share that perception, as well, whether good or bad.
But it doesn't stop there. Consider positioning; competitors have indirect control of their competition's brands. As Al Reis and Jack Trout pointed out, when BMW calls itself The Ultimate Driving Machine, where does that leave Mercedes?
So who "owns" the brand? It depends. The company and its marketing team may own the logo, the usage, the promise, but the customer owns the perception. It's joint ownership -- sometimes shaped by outside influences. Companies that understand that and engage their customers accordingly will be the ones to gain a sustainable competitive advantage.