A while back a client told me he would be too busy to take meetings for a while as he was going to be “building the brand”. He seemed to mean that he needed time alone to do this. I imagine he would be putting together an impressive powerpoint with proposition and values statements, all the brand jargon we’re so used to.
Also a few years ago, I worked on a campaign to promote investment trusts in the UK (they’re a kind of mutual fund). The trade association for ITs paid an agency millions to do this with branding. A snazzy new logo was created. I remember the agency mastermind informing clients: “we’ve now created your new brand, the next step is for us to fill it with meaning.” Extraordinary – as if the mere creation of a logo could somehow wipe the slate of any existing meanings people made for investment trusts; and as if the new meaning would be entirely of his agency’s making.
Both these stories characterise a common misconception: that brands are things, things that the people at the top create, determine and control. What goes with this is a reverence for strategy documents and for tomes of market research. The idea is that by painstaking (and deeply dull) analysis of consumers, it’s possible to develop the “killer” concept that will transform the market.
The stimulus is not the response
But the real world doesn’t play that game.
Consider this blog post: the words that I am now typing and that you are now reading. In writing this, I intend to convey some kind of message to you. Whilst what I say will influence you in some way, I have no control over what you make these words mean. Look at the comments to mine, or anyone’s posts, and you will see how each reader focusses on different ideas and makes different stories.
I often think branding committees should be made to play games of chinese whispers before each meeting, to remind them of the way human beings hear one thing and pass on another.
Branders typically think in terms of big ideas with the idea of more-or-less dictating to the market what their brand is.
As Cluetrain pointed out, markets are conversations. Why do branders think they are lectures?
(In a post on the language of branding I talk about the crazy way brand experts focus on obsessive control of the message, as if this somehow will determine the response of customers).
The truth is out there
We use the word brand as if it refers to something concrete. In reality, it’s shorthand, an averaging out of all the different stories in each of our heads about what an organisation means. Now you can influence these stories by what you do and say, but you can’t control them.
It’s only human nature that branding experts tend to put their focus on the things they can see and can measure, rather than the bits they can’t. Hence the ridiculous way they get in a lather about the profound meaning of the logo, how this colour “means” so-and-so, how that change of font will represent a new informality/formality/whatever.
But the interesting stuff is what isn’t controlled. A marketing director talked about “dancing with customers”. I liked this metaphor, but what sort of dance are we talking about?
For conventional branders, it’s an 18th century ball. This is to be the introduction to society of a young lady. Her attendants fuss about each detail of her attire, her girdle is tightened, last-minute tips are whispered explaining exactly how to move. This is important, because upon her entrance to society, everyone will be watching. There is a certain way of doing things that will make the crowd at the ball behave in the desired way.
But our debutante is in for a shock, when she discovers the real world is not an elegant ball, but a rave party in Ibiza. Her grand entrance goes quite unnoticed amid the uproar. Her elaborate and cumbersome costume is an encumbrance. As she looks around at the scantily clad crowd having fun, she realises she’d much rather have a lot fewer layers. And it would be more fun to drop the predetermined pose and stary gyrating with whichever body comes closer. She throws off her clothes, drops the posture, and gets sweaty.
The dance is not some preprogrammed, choreographed bore. It is created between the participants moment-to-moment. Yes, there is some kind of structure holding it together, but there is invention and variety. Brands are not built in the heads of the experts; they’re actually made up by each of us as we go about our lives.