Branding: everything you know is wrong

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Too many branding books have a sui generis quality. They are free standing and self referential. They strive to be, in the dictionary definition of the term, ‘the only example of its kind; constituting a class of its own; unique.”

Branding books don’t acknowledge other branding books. They don’t build on the history of the field. They don’t draw very much on the field of marketing. They insist that everything we know about branding is wrong. They ask for amnesia. And we too often oblige them. It’s as if the field of branding begins again with each new book.

I had drinks last night with Nick Hahn (Vivaldi Partners) and we were talking about this problem. Nick made the point that people are not so much writing about brands as making one up. And it’s ok when a Nike One campaign doesn’t reference Titlist golf balls or the history of golf. It’s not supposed to. But this is, surely, a rum way to create a community of knowledge and a common pool of intellectual capital.

I then had dinner with Debbie Millman, (Sterling Group), and she added to Nick’s point. Brand books reproduce not just the method but the error of branding, preferring all too often to see the brand statically, with scant regard for its continuities or dynamism.

Divorced in intellectual space and time, brand books have a problem. They fatally confuse the act of thinking about brands with the act of creating them.

I find myself increasingly drawn to models of the brand that assume that the brand is a complex thing with many elements. Part of the problem here is that we are all blind men (and women) and an elephant. Someone describes the feet. This branding. Someone describes the truck. No, this is branding. I am inclined to think we need to see the elephant whole.

For Nokia recently, I suggested we might think of the brand as a sailing ship. This gives us at least three pieces to work with. There is the deep ballast of the brand, the long standing cargo of meanings that are being transshipped across continents over extended periods. There is the deck cargo that comes and goes with each call to port. And there are the sails that are constantly being changed and trimmed to respond to the “in course” corrections that must be made from moment to moment. Every brand must be made up of diverse meanings, some enduring, some changeable, some very fleeting indeed.

And today, I was thinking that we could haul out the dear old psychological chestnut: the Maslow hierarchy of needs. Maslow posited an array of needs and each level seems to me, when used metaphorically, to suggest another aspect of the brands.

The brand must speak to the “physiological need” for utility of some kind. This is where lots of companies get stuck. They suppose its all about functions and they stuff in lots of product features accordingly.

The brand must speak to the “safety need.” And, again metaphorically, this speaks to the issue of ‘trust.” The consumer must know the brand is ‘there for them” in quality, service and damage control. Here too people get stuck. I want to respond, “yes, well, trust is one of the most fundamental meanings contained in the brand, but it is necessary, not sufficient.”

There is the “need for love, affection and belongingness” and this seems to me to capture the brand community work by Fournier and others. The consumer would like to see themselves as belonging to the brand, as being caught up in its sociality. Both Mercedes and Harley Davidson create this kind of club.

There is the need for “need for esteem” and here we have a more private relationship, one between the consumer and not other consumers, but the brand itself. As we all know, this connection can be deeply meaningful and play out several, deeply meaningful aspects of the self from which esteem eventually issues.

And finally there is the “need for self-actualization.” And here we see one of the most astonishing functions of the brand in our culture, the way it serves individuals as a way of supplying new, potential, notions of the self. Here brands work as a staging area, or an audition stage, with which the consumer contemplates and tries on new definitional possibilities. (“Am I Nike golfer or a Titlist one?”) When the audition is complete, the brand then assists the consumer self-actualize, in this case, to make the meanings of the brand the meanings of the self.

No, it’s not at all perfect. But notice that I did not ask you to forget everything you know about branding but tried instead to build a house of many mansions into which diverse notions of the brand might be assembled. Let us be more inclusive, more ecumenical, more integrative. Because some things we know are worth keeping.

3 thoughts on “Branding: everything you know is wrong

  1. Ennis

    Funny — do you shop this way? I do have brand loyalty, but it’s usually to the utility of the brand over time. So Dockers earned partial loyalty by actually being better than knock offs, Lands End earned more by being quite well constructed no matter what I purchased.

    But … I’m pretty fickle, and usually by one item at a time.

    Branding usually turns me off. A&F — UGH. BMW? Why all the pretention. Style is good, but I wish companies would let their style speak for itself.

    But then, I’m different from most consumers. It’s just that brands don’t speak to me much in a positive way unless I have a good acquaintance with their products.

  2. Colin McKay

    Pulling together your first observation about books on branding and Maslow’s hierarchy: it seems that most branding books are actually an exercise by branding consultancies to run the hierarchy in reverse.

    – to help carve out a niche in the marketing universe, they cobble together a book (usually starting with a fingernails’ worth of original thought and a bucketful of design gimmicks). That’s self-actualization.

    – once a managing director has a book, he/she can start working the circuit of association meetings and conferences. All those nametags? Self-esteem.

    – and we can go on …

  3. G. M.

    Curiously enough, Erich Joachimsthaler’s book on branding that he wrote with David Aaker uses this type of hierarchy (functional,emotional and self-expressive benefits) to create a brand identity. The curious part is that the fellow your spoke with Nick Hahn, works for him at Vivaldi Partners, and they utilize this methodology.

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