Brands – Don’t buy the hype

James Woudhuysen has produced a provocative and well thought out essay on the mischief of branding - and of anti-branders.
Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

James Woudhuysen writing in Spiked, lambasts modern day branding – Brands – Don’t buy the hype It’s a well-researched and thought provoking essay. He argues that branding has become a way of avoiding innovation

It is managers’ concern to avoid risks that accounts for the obsession with brands. At Harvard Business School, the feeling is that it is up to the outside world to perform technological innovations. Since the late 1980s, American managers have had it drummed into them that their responsibility is no longer progress (if it ever was), but marketing. That is far safer than spending millions on factories or research and development.

For firms, brands represent the safe haven of the exhausted, not the accumulating power of the confident. Branding exercises reflect trends toward incipient recession: they are a relatively low-cost way to meet short-term demands on profitability. With brands, management horizons are intrinsically low, because innovation in a name, a logo, a pack design or a celebrity sponsor demands less effort, less investment and less risk-taking than real innovation – finding a cure for cancer, or developing a commercially successful follow-up to Concorde.

I tend to agree with this view. So much that is done in the name of branding often seems trivial and offers little real service or product innovation. I think is quite right to challenge the trivialistion of business, and arguably our lives, that this represents.

He goes on to take a shot at the anti-branders too.

The more our society becomes de-politicised, the more both brand boosters and brand critics argue that brands make the world go round. Here brands, or an imagined future of a brand-free planet, offer two visions of the future, which seem to be more convincing than those mustered by today’s politicians.

Why are branding and anti-branding so persuasive as lifestyle options? The defects of left and right in politics explain much. But there is a new reason: both brandsmiths and anti-branders are adamant that their preferred course of action is playful, and thus A Good Thing. They see that there are fewer risks in the play of branding and anti-branding than there are in the hard work of innovation or in the clash of ideas in real debate.

He says that both camps attempt to hijack the idea of genuine human connection and claim it for themselves. I believe he is arguing for a more serious form of public discourse than that promoted by much brand promotion.

Like Pat Kane, who pointed me to the essay, I am wary of Woudhuysen’s denigration of play, as if playfulness is somehow always a bad thing and a threat to effective organisation. I believe that forms of play – a willingness to try new ideas, and to do so collaboratively – are essential to all innovation. I’m also reminded of David Weinberger’s recent article on Small Talk which argues that there is a role for the light and apparently trivial in the forming of relationships. Like most things, I think it’s a question of degree, not an absolute.

Later on, I see he labels the Medinge Group as “brand boosters”. I’m one of the founders of that group and I have to say I think he misunderstands the Medinge viewpoint, which is pretty sceptical about branding.

And, of course, he is indulging in branding himself by coming up with that epithet. The thing is, brands are inevitable. They are created anywhere people form organisations. I see branding as a process in which we are all a part; we continually build the narrative of brands every time we talk about them. Whether brands are good or not (by whatever standard you set) depends entirely on how they are organised, and how we choose to engage with them. I agree with Woudhuysen that we could all do with less hype and less trivia in the way we go about our lives.

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