What Happens at the Brand Interface? A Narrative Inquiry into the Brand Management Practices of Small Firms in Hertfordshire, UK
Morrad, Diane M I
The focus of the inquiry reported in this thesis was to explore the brand management practices put into practice by small firms (defined here as those having between 10 and 49 employees) from the perspective of an ‘entrepreneurial owner-manager’ as the brand owner. My study evaluated the extent to which the personal brand-leadership style of such individuals affects the brand’s interactions with consumers in general, customers specifically, external stakeholders, and its own employees to determine whether those interactions resulted in a dynamic branding strategy capable of delivering sustainable competitive advantage. An exploratory and inductive inquiry based on a qualitative methodology, specifically involving personal, conversational open interviewing, generated a set of narrative cases. The participants were owner-managers of small firms providing services to the consumer market in a single local enterprise area: essentially the county of Hertfordshire. The adoption of a longitudinal design was chosen to address a critical gap in the relevant existing literature, which has so far concentrated on large organisations rather than small firms. This interpretive study of how small firms and their entrepreneurial owner-managers view and exploit a key marketing asset generated a typology of entrepreneurial brand-leadership styles. It furthermore delivers insights into the brand management strategies and tactics put into practice by owner-managers by exploring how and why they are chosen and executed in those real-life cases. I conclude from my inquiry that there is a continuum of brand leadership styles and initiatives, which are determined by the personality, motivation and business aims of given individuals, and on the extent to which they see the opportunities that marketing and branding present for their business. That continuum defines the brand management practices that are adopted and implemented at varying levels of sophistication. The brand is consistently used as a ‘relational asset’, although the extent to which a firm’s staff are enabled and encouraged to engage with the brand through ‘internal branding’, external dialogue and co-creation with consumers at the brand interface is moderated by the marketing capabilities within the firm. All three entrepreneurial owner-managers in the sample were found to be using their brand as a ‘single organising principle’, allowing them to deliver their brand promises and minimise reputational damage to the firm. None of the firms could be said to exhibit a ‘minimalist’ brand orientation. My thesis contributes to the state of academic knowledge and the existing literature by being the first longitudinal study (to the best of my knowledge) to contextualise the brand management practices of small firms, the others having been cross-sectional, as confirmed by Odoom et al. (2017). It shows how the brand management leadership of their entrepreneurial owner-managers is implemented in practice. In so doing, I adopted the seminal Service Dominant Logic lens proposed by Vargo and Lusch (2017). The existence of the research gap it thereby plugs is confirmed by Frow et al. (2015) and Kazadiki et al. (2016). The findings in turn point the way for less exploratory research in future. My study also makes a significant potential contribution to the curricula of undergraduate and postgraduate marketing education, until now dominated by theoretical frameworks and models applicable to branding and brand management of large organisations, by presenting case-based evidence of those strategies and tactics in the small firms that make up a significant proportion of UK economic activity. By the same token, my findings can contribute to the work of policymakers and business advisors to (for example) Local Enterprise Partnerships, in which, according to the Institute of Directors, the quality of available advice for small businesses is highly variable. Returning to the academic implications of my study, future researchers can potentially use this formative research to develop hypotheses for a more definitive investigation focused on developing and testing a new conceptual framework for co-created brand management practices in the ‘post-digital world’, thereby updating the widely used model of Berthon et al. (2008). Future studies could also usefully link brand management in small firms to the existing ‘branding archetypes model’ of Wong and Merrilees (2005). Opportunities also exist to develop midrange and micro-level theory that would allow the metatheory of Service Dominant Logic to be further tested, verified, and adapted to the small firm setting. Technical terms and abbreviations used throughout the thesis are described and defined in the Glossary of Terms at the end of the whole document, after the Appendices.
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