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 dont acknowledge other branding books. They dont build on the history of the field. They dont 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. Its 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 its ok when a Nike One campaign doesnt reference Titlist golf balls or the history of golf. Its 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 Nicks 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, its 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.