The Folly of Branding

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Do you know what the word “brand” means?

No?  Me, neither.

In the 25 years I’ve been running this marketing, PR, communications business, I’ve only been able to draw one conclusion: the more certain someone is that they can define branding, the more likely it is that their definition won’t sound anything like the one offered by last person who was that certain.

In one sense, the term isn’t trivial. For example, the Apple “brand” is worth $183 billion, according to one ad agency quoted recently in the Wall Street Journal.  Then again, according to another agency quoted in the same article, it’s only worth $33.5 billion.  Hmm. Yeah, great minds differ, don’t they?

It doesn’t take a lot of research, mercifully, to read the views of experts who say that a brand is:

  • A source of a promise
  • An idea
  • An application
  • An image
  • An experience
  • A construct
  • An art

Consultants tend to spend a lot of time on what branding is not, along with the fact that it’s “more than”; that it’s a “combination of”; that a brand delivers, forms, creates, enhances, clarifies, identifies, communicates, facilitates and differentiates corporate personality, likability, values, trust, confidence, competence and, of course, great worth.

Clients tend to nod knowingly, and even contribute, when branding consultants offer branding solutions, because even if clients don’t know what branding means, they figure they’ll know it when they see it and, more importantly, they know what they like.

The thing I’ll say about brands is that you really will know one when you see one.  Coke. Nike. McDonald’s. Moreover, when consultants and clients break through and achieve a mutual understanding of what they think branding is, some darn good work can be done. And is.  Brands exist.  They’re real.  So are mirages.  Mirages are easier to explain.

I tend to tire of books by management gurus who start with the successes of companies and draw the conclusion that those companies have done the right things.  All too often, those companies are in the tank five years later.

Such a book about branding would in all likelihood begin with Kodak, which today claims to be the first company to integrate its name into a symbol 105 years ago.  The conclusion would be that visual consistency is at the heart of branding.  Kodak was one big brand.  Well, they’re in bankruptcy today, but its arguable whether their missteps were branding errors – maybe they just had too many irons in the fire.

They didn’t call it branding back then, of course, and the term “brand name” popped up in somewhat of a marketing explosion in 1922, a year when Russell Stover, Eskimo Pie, A&W Root Beer, and Better Homes and Gardens came on the scene and when radio advertising began.  That was also about the time the first advertising agency was created.

Despite flunking geology and eeking out a D in finance, I got mostly A’s in my marketing classes at a pretty respectable business school a few decades ago and don’t recall hearing the word “branding” cross the lips of any of my professors.

Then again, we’re all smarter now, aren’t we? But are we smart enough to suggest how a client who has a $35,000 advertising budget can create the type of transcending image effect that Disney has achieved?

Was Steve Jobs a branding genius or some other kind of genius?  In his recent biography, there’s scant mention of the word branding and, in fact, only as a weapon in the Pixar power play.

Lest the conclusion be drawn that I simply regard branding as a catch phrase for everything from imaging, positioning, product differentiation and the rest, my research – albeit tainted by an intolerance for certain brands of language silliness – leads me to a different conclusion.

Branding is code.  The very foundation of the legal professional is legal code.  Unless you have passed the Bar, you’re not allowed to practice it.  So, when you hear the word branding from a consultant, it means he or she has passed the Marketing Bar.  You’re allowed to discuss it, but you can’t practice it.

More significantly, branding and code are synonyms.  You’ll read no better definition of branding than this definition of code: a system used for brevity or secrecy of communication, in which arbitrarily chosen words, letters, or symbols are assigned specific meaning.

Now, here’s a little PR advice in case you find yourself tying to crack the code in the event that someone gets to talking to you about branding your company, or, heaven forbid, suggests you should be working on your personal brand.  Don’t admit you don’t know what branding is, because that instantly makes one or both of you appear dumber.  Just smile and nod, and then start asking some very hard questions.