By Dean Crutchfield
“Know Thyself” was inscribed above the ancient Temple doors of the Greek God of prophecy and enlightenment, Apollo. We should take heed.
The democratization of brands in our modern age is profound, but the democratization of brands’ definition, is not. Mutual client suspicions and holding company interests underlie the growing debate of brands added value role. Competitive advantage is established either upon price or differentiation. As an industry that’s defined by creating differentiation, it would seem that reinventing the meaning of brand helps us feel different. Case in point, a recent online discussion about what is a brand yielded within two days hundreds of responses from marketing and agency professionals all claiming difference via opposing POVs.
These ranged wildly from a brand is a collection of emotions and feelings, a promise, a living system, a reservoir of cash not yet on the income statement, to a covenant with the consumer, an engaging story, a reputation, through to what a brand stands for, brand is brain and my personal favorite, a flag blowing in the wind. Then of course we have dictionary definitions and those from the 70,000 + agencies that operate in the US! It’s simple exhaustion.
Is it bad faith (to our clients) to envision ourselves as having unlimited options with no constraints on our freedom of interpretation and definition of what we do (for them)? Is our lack of singular clarity around the definition of brand harming the credibility of what we do? Do we hear Doctors debating the definition of health, dentists debating dentistry or architects about architecture, etc?
If you stretch a brand too far it can snap, the same goes for its definition: Historically banks focused on acquiring, growing and protecting their clients’ assets, lending money and making profit out of the assets under management. Then it dramatically switched to banks trading their own spurious products at the sacrifice of their clients and overnight the compensation model was based upon how much money they could make by the volume of the bank’s products they sold as opposed to the number of clients they were managing. The outcome we’re all paying for.
Once brand became a verb and not just a noun, an entire industry leaped up around it “applying ingenuity to the disingenuous” according to Lucas Conley. Thus many clients and pundits are firing salvos saying branding is fast becoming ineffective, irrelevant and impotent: complimenting Amazon CEO, Jim Bezos’s definition as, “A brand is what people say about you when you leave the room.”
Perhaps still the best definition of the word brand, from a 1998 copy of Webster’s dictionary, was “to mark with a red hot poker” and in many ways it’s still spot on because brands need to be red hot in this Darwinian new world of social media and empowered consumers who now can prolifically communicate with each other and form the all powerful “court of public opinion.”
The business goal of any brand is to create more users, new users or new uses by continually innovating to add value to customer’s lives. This we achieve by creating preference (e.g. Intel), building emotional bonds (e.g. Disney), which communicate a unique position in the marketplace (e.g. Gap), thereby creating short cuts for customer decision making (e.g. Caterpillar) that helps insulate against competitive pressure (e.g. McDonald’s) by delivering efficiency to marketing and sales efforts (e.g. Microsoft) and unifying an organization (e.g. GE).
All of this ultimately helps support higher margins (e.g. Vitamin Water) with an asset that adds financial value (e.g. P&G) and helps attract the best talent (e.g. McKinsey) because it represents a powerful presence (e.g. Goldman Sachs) that can facilitate alliances and partnerships (e.g. Olympics).
Brands are a business’s greatest asset as evidenced by the rampant rise in the value of intangible assets: In 1982 the net tangible assets on the Balance Sheets of the companies comprising the S&P 500 accounted for nearly 90% of their value, by 2005 it was just over 20%. Recently, WPPs study by BrandZ, estimated the value of the top 100 global brands at $2 Trillion.
Despite the industry’s largesse, the world of brand definitions is more or less a vicious circle, it won’t be solved soon and the stubborn conflict for definition is a reminder that in some doleful ways brand(ing) is yet to be defined. In its defense, it does have the capacity for reinvention. Why? Because branding is not a body of doctrine but an activity; true originality in branding, as in life, comes from turmoil and the constant search for new insights, ideas and true innovation.
We need to be more cantankerous, contrarian and generous with our scorn for bland branding. Cant and sham should rouse our fury with businesses, brands and agencies that show a high tolerance for conventional approaches to brand building.
To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the need for thought:
Two cows are waiting to be branded. One turns to the other and says, “Did you know that there is a heterogeneous agglomeration of definitions and interpretations for branding; from the sum total of all interactions through to Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness.” The definition of what a brand is remains an anomaly.” The second cow turns to the first and says, “Moo.”
Brands have the power to inspire, instigate, enlighten, enrage, entertain and edify, but as long as brandings riddle remains too vituperatively unanswered then it will remain an arena of rivalry and weakness between clients, marketing channels and agencies. In as much as we strive to differentiate ourselves amongst each other, we as an industry would benefit from some universal and cohesive agreement.
By not having a unified voice with the advent of (narrative based brand and marketing strategies impacting across) multiple platforms to engage consumers, we will continue to struggle together, not win together.
The presiding confluence of economics, culture, and history intertwine creating consumer’s who desire a reciprocal relationship and new thresholds that bring to the fore new brand leaders with a more progressive outlook. Consequently, brand(ing) needs to be elevated to the meta-level because branding is a uniting and almost sacred cause of capitalism: Brands allow consumers to compete to get what they want.
It is time to pick a lane especially given the industry’s anxiety that the old link between GDP growth and marketing spend has been broken. To replace lost revenue, some industry players are branching out beyond their core expertise from new add on revenue streams through to creating their own bands, brands and intellectual property. If we don’t agree upon brand hegemony, we could be perceived as an industry made up of people who don’t know how to define what it is they’re not supposed to do. As Groucho Marx would have told us, “These are my principles; if you don’t like them, I have others.”