Virtual fictional brand management and innovative branding model


Published on

Virtual brands and Fictional Brands explained and innovative branding and brand management techniques presented.
The concepts of protobrands and reverse product placement and explores some of the
managerial and academic implications.
The paper establishes that the brand concept may now be detached from physical embodiment. The
extension of application of the branding domain to the fictional and computer-synthesized worlds is
extensively illustrated by examples of virtual brands from books, films, video games and other
multi-user virtual environments.
Evidence suggests that purely potential brands (protobrands) initiated in the virtual
world may possess strong consumer-based brand equity. The study shows that the equity of the
protobrands may be leveraged in-world (and can acquire legal protection) or through reverse product
placement and the launch of the physical embodiment of the protobrand in the physical world (the
HyperReal brand).
This is an initial conceptual paper on virtual and HyperReal
brands. This study, which has no antecedents, highlights the need for further empirical inquiry. The
reverse product placement phenomenon may result in academics and practitioners to revise the
traditional models of building brands.
Originality/value – The paper introduces and defines virtual brands, both fictional and
computer-synthesized, HyperReal brands and the reverse product placement phenomenon.

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Virtual fictional brand management and innovative branding model

  1. 1. European Journal of MarketingEmerald Article: Branding in fictional and virtual environments:Introducing a new conceptual domain and research agendaLaurent Muzellec, Theodore Lynn, Mary LambkinArticle information:To cite this document:Laurent Muzellec, Theodore Lynn, Mary Lambkin, (2012),"Branding in fictional and virtual environments: Introducing a newconceptual domain and research agenda", European Journal of Marketing, Vol. 46 Iss: 6 pp. 811 - 826Permanent link to this document: on: 07-06-2012References: This document contains references to 82 other documentsTo copy this document: permissions@emeraldinsight.comThis document has been downloaded 10 times since 2012. *Access to this document was granted through an Emerald subscription provided by Emerald Author AccessFor Authors:If you would like to write for this, or any other Emerald publication, then please use our Emerald for Authors service.Information about how to choose which publication to write for and submission guidelines are available for all. Additional helpfor authors is available for Emerald subscribers. Please visit for more information.About Emerald www.emeraldinsight.comWith over forty years experience, Emerald Group Publishing is a leading independent publisher of global research with impact inbusiness, society, public policy and education. In total, Emerald publishes over 275 journals and more than 130 book series, aswell as an extensive range of online products and services. Emerald is both COUNTER 3 and TRANSFER compliant. The organization isa partner of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) and also works with Portico and the LOCKSS initiative for digital archivepreservation. *Related content and download information correct at time of download.
  2. 2. The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at Branding in Branding in fictional and virtual virtual environments environments Introducing a new conceptual domain and research agenda 811 Laurent Muzellec ´ ESSCA Ecole de Management, LUNAM Universite, Boulogne-Billancourt, France Theodore Lynn Leadership, Innovation and Knowledge (LInK) Research Centre, Dublin City University Business School, Dublin, Ireland, and Mary Lambkin UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School, University College Dublin, Dublin, IrelandAbstractPurpose – This paper aims at establishing a new stream of academic study for virtual brands. Itexplains the concepts of protobrands and reverse product placement and explores some of themanagerial and academic implications.Design/methodology/approach – Starting from the most recent definition of the brand construct,the paper establishes that the brand concept may now be detached from physical embodiment. Theextension of application of the branding domain to the fictional and computer-synthesized worlds isextensively illustrated by examples of virtual brands from books, films, video games and othermulti-user virtual environments.Findings – Evidence suggests that purely potential brands (protobrands) initiated in the virtualworld may possess strong consumer-based brand equity. The study shows that the equity of theprotobrands may be leveraged in-world (and can acquire legal protection) or through reverse productplacement and the launch of the physical embodiment of the protobrand in the physical world (theHyperReal brand).Research limitations/implications – This is an initial conceptual paper on virtual and HyperRealbrands. This study, which has no antecedents, highlights the need for further empirical inquiry. Thereverse product placement phenomenon may result in academics and practitioners to revise thetraditional models of building brands.Originality/value – The paper introduces and defines virtual brands, both fictional andcomputer-synthesized, HyperReal brands and the reverse product placement phenomenon.Keywords Brand definition, Brands, Virtual worlds, Brand equity, Reverse product placement, FilmPaper type Conceptual paperIntroductionThe marketing literature has seen a gradual evolution of the brand concept from the European Journal of Marketing Vol. 46 No. 6, 2012traditional perspective of a brand attached to a physical product as an identifying pp. 811-826symbol or word that distinguishes it from its competitors, to a multi-dimensional q Emerald Group Publishing Limited 0309-0566approach which sees a brand as an abstract object or a set of associations in the mind DOI 10.1108/03090561211214618
  3. 3. EJM of the consumer (Gardner and Levy, 1955; Kapferer, 1997; Brown, 1992; Fournier, 1998;46,6 Keller, 2008). However, most of the academic literature has limited itself to the study of branding applications in the real – i.e. the physical world – and ignored the powerful features of virtual and fictional brands, let alone the impact they might exert on the real world. This is a gap which this paper attempts to address. In this paper we make the case that812 the brand construct can be extended to imaginary objects in fictional or computer-synthesized environments, and that the nature of such brands warrants examination particularly in cases where they connect with the real physical world. The concept of brand now connotes the “[. . .] simultaneously virtual and actual, abstract and concrete, a means of relativity and a medium of relationality” (Lury, 2004, p. 12). As much of the branding effort is psychological (Frazer, 1983) and is about shaping brand images as collection of perceptions in the mind of the consumers (Keller, 2008), this paper contends that brands may be entirely created in a virtual or fictional environment and may be then leveraged in the real world. The intersection of the virtual or fictional and the real and its implications for brand management are important for two reasons. First, the convergence of consumers’ capacity to communicate using digital technologies, and the increasing functional interoperability of media technologies requires a more sophisticated interpretation of brands. Second, from a business perspective, early identification of brand potential in virtual worlds represents a commercial opportunity to exploit and/or a risk to mitigate. Following a review of the literature on the evolution of the brand construct, a new classification of brands is presented reflecting Lury’s bi-polar construct – the virtual, the real and those that exist at the intersection of the virtual and the real, the hyperreal. Virtual brands are further sub-divided into fictional and computer-synthesized and it is suggested that such brands sometimes lie outside the normal designation of brand, representing brand potential rather than brand reality; they are in effect, “protobrands”. It is proposed that “protobrands” can be leveraged and transformed into registered trademarks which can derive revenue for their owners through a process sometimes called reverse product placement or, more accurately, reverse brand placement. The managerial and theoretical consequences of this extension of the branding paradigm are discussed at the end of the paper. A research agenda for marketing scholars is also provided. Definitional issues: brands and branding in the real and in the virtual In 1960, the American Marketing Association defined a brand as: A name, term, sign, symbol, or design, or a combination of them, intended to identify the goods or services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of competitors. This definition and other traditional definitions equate a brand with a trademark attached to a physical product. Typically marketing textbooks focus on the concept of brand as a selling device managed by the marketing team who use it as a means of differentiation for the firm’s offering (Kotler and Keller, 2006). Such company-oriented definitions concentrate on the business purpose of branding which is to achieve a competitive advantage and provide the brand owner with higher margins and a continuous stream of income (Aaker, 1992).
  4. 4. As academics began to recognize the emotional involvement of consumers with Branding in“their” brands (Fournier, 1998), the value of widening the brand construct to include virtualboth firm and consumer perspectives became apparent (Salzer-Morling and ¨ ˚Strannegard, 2004). The brand is increasingly seen as a multidimensional construct, environmentsi.e. “a double vortex” (de Chernatony and Dall’Olmo Rilley, 1998a) that embodies thefirm’s functional and emotional values as well as the performance and psychosocialneeds of consumers (de Chernatony and Dall’Olmo Riley, 1998b). The emotional side of 813the brand construct corresponds to a collection of perceptions in the mind of theconsumer (Fournier, 1998). In addition to a shift of emphasis from brand managers to consumers, this evolutionalso allowed for an expansion of the scope of branding. Initially confined to physicalgoods and services (Gardner and Levy, 1955), the brand concept can now be applied toa variety of entities such as corporations (Balmer, 2001), geographical places (Medwayand Warnaby, 2008), political parties (Reeves et al., 2006), movies (Byeng-Hee andEyun-Jung, 2005), and celebrities, e.g. “Madonna as a brand” (Brown, 2003). Such a flexible use of brand terminology reveals a gradual change in the nature ofthe brand construct. Since Gardner and Levy (1955), the intangible and abstractcharacteristic of the brand has gradually been acknowledged (Levy, 1978; Keller, 1993),to the extent that a brand may sometimes be reduced to nothing more than the sum ofall the mental connections people have around it (Brown, 1992). Pushing the reasoningfurther one may ask whether a physical embodiment is still a necessity for a brand toexist, as long as the name, the symbol or the design triggers a set of associations in themind of the consumer? For example, Abela (2003) has identified two kinds of interpretations of a brand: (1) The additive interpretation, which depicts the product and brand as separate, with the brand as a mark that is added to the product. (2) The inclusive interpretation which portrays the product and brand as a combined unit, where the product is included in the brand.Could the additive interpretation of the brand imply that a product and a brand may becreated separately and managed independently without reliance on each other? It isinteresting to note that recent sociological work on branding puts forward the notion ofthe brand as an “interface that connects the producers and the consumers and removesor separates them from each other” (Lury, 2004, p. 7). This is because consumersdevelop relationships with the brand (Blackston, 2000) but not necessarily with theproducers (Kumar and Steenkamp, 2007). In fact, some commentators have suggestedthat “successful corporations must primarily produce brands, as opposed to products”(Klein, 2000, p. 3). This dual evolution (“intangibilisation” and “consumer-focus”) of the brandconstruct coincides with new marketing practices facilitated by the technologicalevolution of the internet. In recent years, world wide web technology such as reallysimple syndication (RSS) and Web 2.0 applications such as blogs, microblogs,multi-user virtual environments and social networking websites, have re-balanced thetraditional asymmetry of information between brand managers and consumers to therelative benefit of the latter (Kozinets et al., 2008). These technological innovations callfor a new post-modern consumer branding model (Holt, 2002; Muzellec and McDonagh,2007; Simmons, 2008).
  5. 5. EJM New terminology such as “Branding 2.0” or “Web 2.0 branding” has emerged and is46,6 attempting to capture the multifaceted nature of a new brand building process (Mairinger, 2008; Christodoulides, 2009). For example, “Branding 2.0” is built around three principles: (1) an online brand community which is not just formed around the brand but is part of the brand;814 (2) a physical-virtual interface which is evidenced in both physical and virtual environments; and (3) an underlying information system that collects and disseminates consumer-generated information (Mairinger, 2008). This model reflects emergent practices for the management of brands in the information age. It underscores how brand managers are no longer in control of the brands, but are merely brand hosts whose main role is to facilitate the sharing of information about or around the brand among internet users. In this new dominant logic for marketing, the customer is primarily an operant resource (co-producer) rather than an operand resource (“target”) (Vargo and Lusch, 2004). In such a context, branding is envisaged as a dynamic concept that is evolving over time through interaction between the firm and consumers, and through independent consumer activity which occurs through word of mouth at the level of blogs (e.g. Blogger), social networks (e.g. Facebook), video sharing sites (e.g. YouTube), and open multi-user virtual environments (e.g. Second Life). Although novel and relevant, this model fails to capture fully the theoretical and managerial implications of brands comprised totally of intangible benefits. Free from the constraint of physical embodiment, the brand sphere may expand beyond reality into the virtual. If the brand is no longer a product and only acquires value once it is a set of perceptions in consumers’ minds, then the argument could be made that brands need not be born out of a tangible good but could come out of fictional or computer-synthesized environments which capture consumers’ imagination. The worlds of branding: the real, the virtual (computer-synthesized) and the fictional We have identified two types of platforms which may support the representation of a brand disconnected from the real, tangible world. First of all, there is the fictional world which is a representation of imaginary worlds that may mimic reality such as in the case of soap operas, or that may deliberately extrapolate into worlds which are demonstrably different from reality such as abstract art, science fiction etc. Both of these cases share in common the fact that the ´ representations are not reality. As Belgian painter Rene Magritte reminds us through his famous painting “The treachery of images” (La trahison des images, 1928-1929), images are not the reality[1]. This fictional world may be manifest in traditional media such as books, movies, television series and theatre. In the fictional world, consumers’ influence on the story is limited as they are not actors in this world but simple readers or observers of the fiction. Second, the virtual world (which will be called the computer-synthesized world hereafter to distinguish it from the fictional world) is “an animated, nonexistent virtual world synthesized by a computer” (Steur, 1995). Virtual worlds are platforms that replicate a three dimensional environment in which users can appear in the form of
  6. 6. personalized avatars and interact with each other as they would in real life. Virtual Branding inworlds include virtual game worlds and virtual social worlds. The user is active and virtualinvolved both in virtual game and virtual social worlds but the degree of users’influence on those worlds varies. In the case of virtual game worlds or multiplayer environmentsonline role-playing games (MMORPG, e.g. World of Warcraft), the user cannot modifythe world and is required to behave according to strict rules. In the case of virtual socialworlds, however, the user may sometimes, literally shape the world when it is an open 815source system such as the virtual world called “Second Life” (Kaplan and Haelein,2009). For a long time, the activity of branding in those worlds has been limited to thepractice of placing real brands in those abstract environments. This practice is knownas product placement or more accurately described in academic circles as “brandplacement” (Karrh, 1998). Brands may be placed in fictional worlds such as movies orin virtual worlds such as video games (Lee and Faber, 2007), or virtual social worlds(Kaplan and Haelein, 2009). Most studies on brand placement have analysed its effect on brand attitude andbrand recall (see Balasubramanian et al., 2006, for a comprehensive review). Manystudies have reported some positive effects on audience memory for placed brands(Karrh, 1998; Law and Braun, 2000; Yang et al., 2006), but a limited or even negativeimpact on attitude under certain conditions (Schemer et al., 2008; Homer, 2009). Interestingly, in a qualitative study on the meaning of brand placement formoviegoers, DeLorme and Reid (1999) observed the value of realism as audiencesappreciated the realism that real brands brought to the movie. In other words, thepractice of product placement is about bringing the reality of products/brands into anabstract fictional or virtual world. This paper argues that this is only one way ofconsidering the relationship between fiction and reality and that brands may be realbut also fictional and virtual, i.e. projections of reality in a fictional world or indeedprojections of the imaginary in the real world (reverse product placement (see Figure 1). Arguably, projections of real brands in computer-synthezied and fictional worldsare merely a representation of product placement. This phenomenon has beenextensively discussed and studied in the area of on-line and video games (e.g. Nelson, Figure 1. Framework for the study of real, fictional and virtual brands
  7. 7. EJM 2002; Lee and Faber, 2007) and fictional environments (e.g. Gould et al., 2000; Wiles and46,6 Danielova, 2009), but this is not the subject of this paper. Instead, the objective of this paper is to articulate a new concept – that of virtual brands initiated in fictional and computer-synthesized worlds, to suggest their relevance for brand managers and to propose a research agenda on this new topic for the academic community.816 A note on the methodology Based on our review of the literature, we propose a new typology to help us understand the range of brands that may exist on a spectrum from real to fictional or virtual. This framework is illustrated in Figure 2 and it identifies four types of brands based on the origins of the brand and the world in which it exists. Those four categories are presented in four quadrants in Figure 2. Quadrants A and C represent product placement and includes most brands as we currently experience them and, as pointed out already, they have already been well studied in the literature. Our purpose, therefore, is to investigate quadrant B (fictional and virtual brands in abstract worlds) and quadrant D (fictional or virtual brands in the real world). We have collected names of brands to illustrate the two latter categories (B and D). The list that is currently available at Wiki list is quite comprehensive although not exhaustive ( as accessed on 15 June 2010). Under the term “defictionalised brands”, many internet websites propose a list of virtual brands which are now available as real products; for example: . (as accessed on 15 June 2010). . (as accessed on 15 June 2010). In addition to those lists, a number of twitter users regularly send tweets about news on the topic of fictional brands (in particular @defictionalized and @defictionalised) or the blog of Justin Kirwood ( as accessed on 15 June 2010). Using those resources, we have identified more than 250 fictional and virtual brands (quadrant B) and found 25 examples of reverse brand placement (quadrant D). We analyse these two categories in the following sections and illustrate this analysis by using the relevant examples. As the purpose of this study is to describe a phenomenon and set up a research agenda rather than develop a new theory, a limited number ofFigure 2.Typology of brands in realand virtual worlds
  8. 8. examples were chosen and briefly developed on the merit of their informative value Branding in(Flyvbjerg, 2006). virtual environmentsQuadrant B – purely virtual: the emergence of protobrandsPurely virtual brands include fictional or computer-synthesized brands and exist solelyin the imagination of the perceiver. Initially, fictional brands were often used to minimize the reliance on corporate 817sponsorship in artistic works. For example, to affirm the non-conformist nature of hismovies, film director, Quentin Tarentino uses several fictional brands such as the fastfood brand, “Big Kahuna Burgers”, the cereal brand “Fruit Brute”, and “Red Apple”cigarettes in films such as Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, and Four Rooms. Looking specifically at the case of “Red Apple” cigarettes, Muzellec and McDonagh(2007) note that such brands may hold specific associations. “Red Apple” cigarettesderive “coolness” from characters such as “Butch Coolidge” (Bruce Willis) and “MiaWallace” (Uma Thurman), who smoke them in the film, Pulp Fiction. Hence, “RedApple” mimics the emotional characteristics of a genuine brand. Yet, it cannot bepurchased or consumed, at least not as cigarettes. It only exists in the imagination ofthe audience. To paraphrase Brown’s assertion, a purely fictional brand is literally“nothing but the sum of all the mental connections people have around it” (Brown,1992). Thus we define fictional brands as completely imaginary brands which, whileinvented, cannot be consumed. Virtual, computer-synthesized brands are similar to fictional brands in that theyhave no referent in the real world. The difference is that they are not only invented andbut also consumed in the online world. Users can consume these virtual brands,although only in the computer-synthesized environment in which the brand exists. Forexample, players in computer games such as Grand Theft Auto can use virtualvending machines to purchase and consume virtual beverages with virtual money,such as “Sprunk” and “eCola”. These virtual brands are often reinforced within thevirtual world through in-game advertising on virtual billboards. Again, while there aremental connections with the brand, the entire brand experience iscomputer-synthesized; the products to which the brand is attached cannot beconsumed in the real world nor can they generate monetary value in the real world. Purely virtual brands, whether purely fictional or purely computer-synthesized, donot possess any realness, yet they can possess emotional value. Despite this emotionalvalue and equity, these brands only represent a potential which, unless acted upon inthe real world, has no economic value as this value cannot be realized without realworld interaction. We define such brands as protobrands; brands that have not been“tangibilized” or “productized” in the real physical world but which nonethelesscapture the imagination and emotional attachment of real consumers. Evidence is also emerging of a new form of computer-synthesized brand that doesnot rely on a “real” product or service existing for commercial exploitation but whoseconsumption in the virtual results generates real monetary value in the real world. Forexample, “Aimee Weber” is the Second Life identity of Alyssa LaRoche. LaRochefounded a line of avatar fashions known as “ *Preen *” anchored by her in-world avatarpersona “[. . .] as an outrageously brash, flirty, vaguely tipsy ballerina with bluebutterfly wings” (Au, 2008). LaRoche established a number of in-world stores to sell the“ *preen *” fashion line to other Second Life members and promotes these products
  9. 9. EJM widely in-world. In August 2006, the 20 best-selling Second Life fashion designers,46,6 including LaRoche, generated a combined US$140,466 in sales (LaVallee, 2006). It is important to note that LaRoche’s sales are concluded in-world using Linden Dollars, the Second Life currency, which can then be used to purchase other virtual products and services or can be exchanged for US dollars. In November 2008, “Aimee Weber” became the first avatar with a registered818 trademark for virtual content and services. The “Aimee Weber” brand is significant for a number of reasons, not least that it has legal protection in the real world yet its brand equity and commercial value are generated entirely in the computer-synthesized world of Second Life. LaRoche may never license or produce physical clothing products under the “Aimee Weber” brand in the real world; however her rights to do so in the virtual world are protected. It is important to note that “Aimee Weber” is no longer a protobrand; it is a brand with a registered trademark, it matches the firm’s functional and emotional values with the performance and psychosocial needs of consumers (de Chernatony and Dall’Olmo Riley, 1998a, b), and generates real economic value as virtual currency paid for “Aimee Weber” branded products can be converted to hard currency via the Linden Dollar Exchange. Quadrant D – the emergence of HyperReal brands In this section, we discuss the phenomenon where protobrands are acted upon and, by interacting with the real world, are no longer merely virtual brands but are transformed into an autonomous interactive brand that exists in both the real and virtual worlds, a HyperReal brand (Figure 3).Figure 3.HyperReal brands arebrands that interact andgenerate brand equity inboth real and virtualworlds
  10. 10. HyperReal fictional brands Branding inHyperReal fictional brands are brands which are both fictional and real. As seen virtualearlier, product placement is a process whereby a concrete brand (the real) is placed ina fictional or virtual environment (the abstract). In contrast, reverse product placement environmentsrefers to creating a fictional brand in a fictional environment and then placing it intothe real world (Edery, 2006). In an early example of reverse product placement, the TVseries Cheers was set in a friendly Boston bar inspired a chain of restaurants controlled 819by US Marriott and Paramount Pictures. The Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., a chain ofseafood restaurants was inspired by the 1994 film Forrest Gump. The first BubbaGump’s restaurant was opened in 1996 in Monterey, California by Viacom ConsumerProducts; the franchise now counts 31 restaurants. More recent examples include DuffBeer (from the animated TV series The Simpsons), Brawndo drink (from the filmIdiocracy), or Sex Panther cologne (from the film Anchorman). The phenomenon is notlimited to the western world. The initially fictional restaurant brand, “Long Quan ShanZhuang ( )”, from the TV series “Liu Lao Gen ( )” is now one of China’sfavourite restaurant chains.HyperReal computer-synthesized brandsThe second type of HyperReal virtual brands are those which exist both in thecomputer-synthesized world (video game and virtual worlds) and in the real world. Thesimplest form of HyperReal brands are merely licensed by the creator of thecomputer-synthesized brand to a third party for exploitation in the real world. InSquare Enix’s popular videogame, Final Fantasy, gamers revitalize their in-worldwarrior avatars by drinking an herbal potion. Final Fantasy, first introduced as a gameconsole role-playing game in 1987, has become the focus of a media franchise whichincludes other game vehicles, animated feature films and print adaptations. It is thefifth best-selling video game franchise with over 85 million units sold (Square Enix,2009). Suntory, Japan’s leading beverage producer created an energy drink andlicensed the “Final Fantasy Potion” brand for marketing purposes. In this way, SquareEnix, is able to economically exploit the unintended brand equity of the Final Fantasypotion. Equally, companies may gauge consumer interest in a future product or service byfirst seeking to establish brand equity in a computer-synthesized world and thentransferring it to real products. For example, in 2006, Starwood Hotels built, previewedand collected feedback about its new brand of hotel, “Aloft” in Second Life, a yearbefore opening the real one ( Jana, 2006). Hosea (2007) suggests that this method ofproduct introduction is an excellent way to inform consumers without the cost andhassle of an actual product launch. It is also a good way to test a beta version andintegrate customers’ views prior to the product launch. For this reason, this process issometimes equated with “crowdsourcing”, a coined termed for an online, distributedproduction model (Brabham, 2008).Triple-play brandsTriple-play brands are brands that exist in fictional, computer simulated and realworlds. A recent example of a triple-play brand is “Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans”, aconfectionary product first introduced as a protobrand in the Harry Potter books. Theprotobrand translated to a HyperReal brand with the production of real candy
  11. 11. EJM manufactured by Cap Candy, a division of Hasbro. These fictional jelly beans also46,6 migrated from the fictional world of the Harry Potter books to a series of very successful films, where they were visualised, and then to interactive video games, where game players collected, consumed or used the beans as currency to purchase other products within the computer-synthesized world of Harry Potter. Furthermore, internet rumours suggest that Warner Brothers are developing a MMPORG of the820 Harry Potter world which presumably will feature the aforementioned confectionary (Coding the Wheel, 2009). Here emotional attachments formed by readers and viewers is reinforced by having a more prominent role in the computer-simulation of a video game and is leveraged in the real world by Cap Candy product, creating a virtuous circle of brand reinforcement. Discussion: protobrands, an opportunity to exploit, a risk to mitigate All of the examples in quadrant D represent protobrands that initially existed in the virtual world and were ultimately tangibilized or productised in the real physical world. We argue that there is a significant economic incentive related to the early identification and protection of protobrands, particularly for media companies, even where such potential is identified as a by-product of a master brand. For example, “Duff Beer” is a fictional brand of beer in the popular animated television series, The Simpsons. It is a secondary brand to the master brand The Simpsons and exists to further a fictional narrative. While recognized by television audiences worldwide, “Duff Beer”, as presented in The Simpsons, could not be consumed by them. Warner Brothers, the owners of The Simpsons, do not have interests in the brewing industry and merchandising opportunities for an alcoholic beverage associated with an animated television series watched by millions of children may be perceived as unethical. As such, Warner Brothers chose not to act on the potential of “Duff Beer” as a brand in the alcoholic beverage market and did not register “Duff Beer” as a trademark for such activity. In an article from 2007, a representative for 20th Century Fox asserted that there were no plans to release a “Duff Beer” product: “It doesn’t sound like something the Simpsons would do” (Wasserman, 2007). However, an entrepreneur in Mexico, Rodrigo Contreras, managed to register the trademark in Mexico. Subsequently, the brewery Haacht in Belgium produced and successfully marketed a real beer with a real taste and while it did not feature any reference to The Simpsons, the packaging was similar enough that when combined with the brand-name, it attracted those consumers with emotional connections to The Simpsons. Warner Brothers’ fictional brand still has potential, although somewhat impaired, but Contreras owns the trademarked brand which is deriving economic value for Contreras and not for Warner Brothers This example illustrates that, while protobrands may have economic consequences, they are not economically valuable in themselves unless acted upon in the real world. Considering that a beer brand, such as Budweiser, can have a brand valuation of over US$11 billion (Businessweek, 2009), “Duff Beer” serves as a cautionary tale to highlight the importance of identifying protobrands as early as possible and, where possible, of protecting those protobrands for future applications. It may also be that, where protobrands can be identified, a less expensive brand development strategy may be to develop that brand in a computer-synthesized environment such as Second Life and, similar to the case of “Aimee Weber”, seek legal protection for the brand in the virtual environment. While
  12. 12. protection against passing off in the real world may be limited by such a manoeuvre, it Branding inmay serve as a signal of intent to others seeking to exploit the protobrands without virtualcompensation to the original creator of the protobrand. environmentsConclusion and research agenda for the study of virtual brandsFollowing a review of the literature on the brand construct and branding models, a newtypology of brands is offered based on the virtual, the real and those that exist at the 821intersection of the virtual and the real, the HyperReal. The concept of virtual brands isdefined and illustrated both fictional and computer-synthesized worlds. These brandsmay sometimes lie outside the normal meaning of the term, as they represent brandpotential as opposed to brand reality, and are therefore “protobrands”. From a businessperspective, the authors present the case of “Duff Beer” to illustrate that earlyidentification of brand potential in virtual worlds represents a commercial opportunityto exploit, or a risk to mitigate. The research agenda following from the implications of virtual reality for the brandconstruct and branding theory is still in the early stages of conceptualization anddevelopment. These extensions to the concept of branding open up new researchopportunities in the field of brand marketing, brand equity and consumer-brandrelationship. Research on traditional brand marketing has shown that positive synergiesemerged from using various marketing communication channels (Naik and Raman,2003). Some possible research questions for virtual brands include: (1) What are the critical marketing communication factors (scale of the audience, characteristics of media vehicle, characteristics of the brand, and timeframe of the media plan) for a virtual brand to be successfully productised and commercialised? (2) Which media vehicles are the most cost effective for launching and establishing virtual brands and why? (3) To what extent can a protobrand be leveraged without reference to its master brand (i.e. the media vehicle) in which it first appeared? (4) What is the level of congruence/ divergence between the media vehicle (e.g. brand personality of the movies, computer game etc.) and the virtual brand?Traditional brand equity can be measured at consumer level, i.e. consumer-basedbrand equity (Keller, 1993, 2008), product-market level (e.g. Sivakumar and Raj, 1997;Park and Srinivasan, 1994) and financial market level (Keller and Lehmann, 2006). Forvirtual brands, those assertions translate in the following research questions: (1) How do we measure consumer-based brand equity for virtual brands? (2) What is the effect of “productisation” on consumer-based brand equity (in particular on brand associations)? (3) What are the best approaches to track brand performance of virtual brands? (4) How can the financial value of a potential brand (protobrand) be assessed?Brand transgression, defined as a violation of the implicit or explicit rules guiding therelationship between performance and evaluation has been identified as having a
  13. 13. EJM significant influence on the dynamics of the consumer-brand relationship (Aaker et al.,46,6 2004). As the consumer’s emotional attachment to virtual brands has developed on the premise that the brand was solely virtual, some fundamental research questions include: (1) Does the act of “productisation” of the virtual brand constitute a transgression? (2) If yes, what is the impact of such transgression on brand-consumers dynamics?822 Although this initial contribution reports some interesting findings, it is not without limitations. It is primarily a practical contribution and because it has no antecedents, the research agenda is broad. However the research agenda will narrow as academics start to study empirically the topic of virtual and fictional brands. The convergence between media and technology may also have theoretical and managerial implications that go beyond the field of marketing. Note 1. The picture shows a pipe. Below it, Magritte painted, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, French for “This is not a pipe.” The painting is not a pipe, but rather an image of a pipe, which was Magritte’s point. References Aaker, D.A. (1992), “The value of brand equity”, Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 13 No. 4, pp. 27-32. Aaker, J.L., Fournier, S. and Brasel, A.S. (2004), “When good brands do bad”, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 31 No. 1, pp. 1-16. Abela, A. (2003), “Additive versus inclusive approaches to measuring brand equity: practical and ethical implications”, Journal of Brand Management, Vol. 10 No. 4, pp. 342-52. Au, W.J. (2008), The Making of Second Life, Harper Collins, New York, NY. Balasubramanian, S.K., Karrh, J.A. and Patwardhan, H. (2006), “Audience response to product placements: an integrative framework and future research agenda”, Journal of Advertising, Vol. 35 No. 3, pp. 115-41. Balmer, J.M.T. (2001), “Corporate identity, corporate branding and corporate marketing: seeing through the fog”, European Journal of Marketing, Vol. 35 Nos 3/4, pp. 248-91. Blackston, M. (2000), “Observations: building brand equity by managing the brand’s relationships”, Journal of Advertising Research, Vol. 40 No. 6, pp. 101-5. Brabham, D.C. (2008), “Crowdsourcing as a model for problem solving”, Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, Vol. 14 No. 1, pp. 75-90. Brown, G. (1992), People, Brands and Advertising, Millward Brown International, New York, NY. Brown, S. (2003), “Material girl or managerial girl? Charting Madonna’s brand ambition”, Business Horizons, Vol. 46 No. 4, pp. 2-10. Businessweek (2009), “100 best global brands 2009”, Businessweek, No. 4148, pp. 50-6. Byeng-Hee, C. and Eyun-Jung, K. (2005), “Devising a practical model for predicting theatrical movie success: focusing on the experience good property”, Journal of Media Economics, Vol. 18 No. 4, pp. 247-69. Christodoulides, G. (2009), “Branding in the post-internet era”, Marketing Theory, Vol. 9 No. 1, pp. 141-4.
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  17. 17. EJM Strizhakova, Y., Coulter, R.A. and Price, L.L. (2008), “The meanings of branded products: a cross-national scale development and meaning assessment”, International Journal of46,6 Research in Marketing, Vol. 25 No. 2, pp. 82-93. Terashima, N. (2001), “The definition of HyperReality”, in Tiffin, J. and Terashima, N. (Eds), HyperReality: Paradigm for the Third Millennium, Routledge, New York, NY. Terry, M. (2001), “When is a prop not a prop: the advantages of product placement”, Sports826 Marketing, Vol. 74, pp. 17-18. Tiffin, J. (2001), “The HyperReality paradigm”, in Tiffin, J. and Terashima, N. (Eds), HyperReality: Paradigm for the Third Millennium, Routledge, New York, NY. Weintraub, J. (2005), “Product placement is a super tradition in Hollywood”, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, available at: news/2005/03/03/TheMix/Product.Placement.Is.A.Super.Tradition.In.Hollywood-883964. shtml (accessed 23 June 2009). About the authors Laurent Muzellec is currently an Associate Professor of Marketing at ESSCA School of Management, France. His research interests pertain to the field of strategic brand management, corporate rebranding, and branding strategies in interactive and social media. His articles have appeared in several international publications including Industrial Marketing Management, Marketing Theory, the Journal of Product and Brand Management and the European Journal of Marketing. Laurent Muzellec is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: Theodore Lynn is the Director of the Leadership, Innovation and Knowledge Research Centre ( at Dublin City University where he teaches at postgraduate level on Strategic Management. He holds a PhD in Law from University College Dublin. Dr Lynn is leading an interdisciplinary research project on multi-user virtual environments. Mary Lambkin is Professor of Marketing at the UCD Smurfit School of Business, University College Dublin. She is on the editorial boards of the Journal of Strategic Marketing. She has published in the Journal of Marketing, the International Journal of Research in Marketing and the European Journal of Marketing. To purchase reprints of this article please e-mail: Or visit our web site for further details: