A trick question. Sort of.
a) That thing that keeps the rain off my head
b) That thing that KGB assassins hide poison in
c) Pretty much the basis for all advertising strategy
As long as I've worked in advertising, we've used the umbrella as a metaphor for the relationship between the brand strategy and execution. The brand acts as the fabric of the umbrella that holds it together and the individual executions such as mass-media campaigns, websites, promotions, etc. serve as the spokes of the umbrella. The big brand idea informas all of the executions so that the consumer gets a consistent and relevant message across all channels.
On the whole, it works well. Until it starts raining sideways.
The umbrella concept evolved from a top-down communications environment. Not too long ago, marketers could depend on controlling most if not all of the consumer information about their brands. Consumers got their brand information from mass media, especially television. Sure, alternate sources of information existed. However, consumers didn't use them very widely.
Take Consumer Reports, for example. I can't tell you how many times I heard respondents in focus groups or man-in-the-streets interview say that they reached for Consumer Reports every time they had to make a major purchase. If they had all been telling the truth, Consumer Reports would have better circulation numbers than Gideon's Bible. Instead, the magazine and its website find their way into about 7% of American households.
In the pre-web era, consumers had to do a lot of work to find out the real truth of brands, short of buying the product. For a heavily-researched category such as motor vehicles, consumers would have to read magazines like Car & Driver or Road & Track, not just once, but potentially for months. The buff books don't write about every car, every month. Potentially, consumers could look up back issues in the public library, but that required a somewhat arduous process of finding an index of articles and then locating the proper issue. At best, most non-gearheads might ask a gearhead what they thought about cars they were interested in.
Fast-forward to today where any consumer can get the goods on any brand at any time...in no time at all.
This is what I mean by "raining sideways." The communication doesn't go top-down anymore. Consumers talk amongst each other via multifold online and social channels. The umbrella doesn't do so much when the information comes in from all sides.
For instance, maybe a brand has spent millions on TV commercials that suggest that they can sell you auto insurance cheaper than anyone else. Great. Now meet Insurance.com, which puts that claim to the test. Fact is, even a cursory search on the Internet turns up information that can disprove a brand.
Instead, brands should think about the umbrella in a new way. In a subsequent post, I'll suggest that maybe it's not an umbrella but rather another metaphor, this one from the software industry: the presentation layer.