is the branding concept AWOL?

Branding_4 What a thing is branding.  So vigorous in its purpose, so capacious in its reach.  To chart the expanse of the enterprise, I give you two of its practitioners. 

Timothy Neve is the creative director of Boutique Agency.  He is a graduate of Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Arts and he is famous for his theatre set and costume design.

He calls a brand a "visual personality."  His website says,

Tim’s passion and gift is for creating brands from inception, flowing through to unique advertising aesthetics – along with his amazing eye for detail and expression.

Cool Hunting today described Tim as creating "a flourishing identity throughout all aspects of branding." 

Thomas Cromwell
is the head of East West Communications. He specializes in helping nations create brands for themselves. 

Here’s how he is described by his website:

[Thomas Cromwell] has traveled to over 100 countries and worked with many governments on their communications needs, including the preparation of country reports for The Washington Post, The Washington Times and other media. […]

Here’s the way Cromwell describes the value of what he does.

If, on the other hand, your country is known for civil war, widespread crime and corruption, inadequate infrastructure or an unfriendly population, the task of encouraging tourists to visit your destinations is very difficult. You have to either pretend all those disincentives don’t exist, or convince your audience that they will have no impact on a visit to your country.

Think about it. If you are heading to a vacation destination that looks like paradise in the brochures or on the net, but when you arrive you are kept in a long line at passport control at an airport that is dirty and has no climate control, and then you are exposed to sweaty men fighting over who will take you in his taxi, and on and on, your vacation will be spoiled and you are unlikely to return to that country.

(To be fair, not all of Mr. Cromwell’s prose is as bad [or funny] as this.  And some of his notions of branding are interesting.)

I don’t doubt that Neve and Cromwell are good at what they do.  But I am impressed that the same term can describe what they do.  Branding, what an athletic little concept.  Apparently, it applies to the aesthetic,  flourishing, and flowing even as it applies to investment,  tourism, and nationhood (oh right, and "sweaty men fighting.")   

Ours is an expanding culture, its absolute semantic space growing a pace.  So it makes an anthropologist’s heart glad to discover something this encompassing, a bit of culture that stretches from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters, as it were.  (I refer of course to the deathless lyrics of "This Land is Your Land" by the Brothers Four.)

Still, "branding" is perhaps too inclusive for its own good.  It may be all things to all people because it’s not much of anything to anyone of us.  Aesthetic and practical, identity and investment, perhaps no concept can stretch this far.

I wonder if the concept called branding is not AWOL, an innocent making its way in the world, falling sometimes into bad company, pressed into service by the not very scrupulous or the not very bright.  It’s as if "branding" fell off the back of a truck and is now circulating without guarantees or operating instructions.  Gray matter gone gray market. 

This raises the question of who should be in charge.  Should it be the academics?  Should it be Mr. David Aaker at Berkeley?  Should it be Philip Kotler at Northwestern.   I don’t think so.  Kotler has done magnificent work, but generally speaking this academy is guilty of abuse and obfuscation.  I was interested to see that, today, Ann Fudge (pictured) resigned as the CEO of Young & Rubicam Brands.  I could not help wondering whether her professional fate would have been any different if her alma mater (Harvard Business School) actually understood brands in any sophisticated way.  Put it this way, no one in the business school community gets the cultural dimension of branding.  This is a little like doing statistics without understanding any of the math.  (You are just going through the motions.  Let’s hope this works for you. God help you when it doesn’t.) 

Well, perhaps the keepers of the branding concepts should be the gurus and the consultants.  Oh, don’t even go there, girlfriend.  Gurus and consultants are famous for adjusting their concepts to suit the client.  So they should, that’s their job.  But this makes them the very worst guardians of the branding concept. 

I believe the nod should go to the marketing practitioner.  Not all of them, to be sure.  But there are people out there who a) really, really care about the brand, b) who have the advantage of watching it take shape over several years, c) who have the advantage of seeing how it responds to various experiments in product development, advertising, promotion, and interaction, d) who have built up an idea based on practice that makes up in empirical acuity what it lacks in formal specification. 

If we were smart, we would go out, gather up best practice, and make this the new standard of what branding is and how branding works. 


Cromwell, Thomas.  n.d., Why Nation Branding Is Important For Tourism.  The East West Communications Website. here.

Sanders, Lisa.  2006.  Ann Fudge Retires From Young & Rubicam Brands.  Ad Age.  November 28, 2006. here. (subscription required)

The boutique agency website here.

Cool Hunting on Tim Neve here.

10 thoughts on “is the branding concept AWOL?

  1. jens

    as you know, branding is a poor word and a misleading one.
    it is much less about marking the cattle and much more about making burocratic frictions disapear and enabling a client’s corporate system to act as one.
    not because some consultant says that – but because the customers demand it.
    different customers demand different things in different markets which all have one thing in common: decisiveness wins. – and that is … brand (if you want to say so)

  2. Graham Hill


    Challenging as ever. I wonder whether you do it on purpose or whether you really believe what you right! Who knows?

    You missed out customers as potential custodians. Or the company as a whole.

    Branding diven by the marketing department is truly a hollow concept, all sizzle and no steak. Without understanding what brands make customers’ feel, it really is like playing at Carnegie Hall but forgetting to open the doors to let the public in. And without involving the rest of the company in a concerted effort to deliver the brand, it is like playing at Carnegie but forgetting to practice with the rest of the orchestra.

    As the old saw almost goes, “Branding is far too important to be left to the marketing department”

    Graham Hill

  3. Tom Asacker

    Don’t stop there Grant. Please dig a little deeper. For example, what does “brands in any sophisticated way” mean?

    I’m not an anti-intellectual. After all, I make my living by various feats of verbalization. But there is no grist for the intellectual mill if we discuss concepts as simply concepts, without tying them back to the business at hand. There is surely knowledge which can not be readily put into words, e.g. art, music, dance, etc., but branding?

    Is Google a strong brand? Its market cap is larger than Indonesia. Was it developed in a sophisticated way? If by sophisticated you mean, undertstand your audience and the marketplace and develop a product or service that attracts said audience and captures value for your business, then I certainly agree. But perhaps there is something esoteric about the concept which I’m missing.

  4. steve

    I hate to be repetitive, but I really think there have to be some distinctions among concepts here. A “brand” can be a promise of quality for a credence or experience good, a signpost to a particular type of product performance, a form of social identification, a form of personal identification, a repository of pleasant mental associations, etc. These are pretty different things and they are created in different ways and have different competitive impacts.

    Scientists complain that people talk about “cancer” as if it were one thing instead of many. I think “brand” has a similar degree of conceptual integrity. My general definition would be: A brand is a set of customer beliefs about what the experience of buying and consuming a product is or will be like. I would then split brands into three groups: performance-based, meaning-based, or performance-and-meaning-based.

    The commenters above who talk about the need for the whole company to be involved are talking about brands that are performance-based (i.e. promises about the quality of experience or credence goods, or signposts to particular types of performance). For those brands, the product or service has to actually deliver some level of functionality, convenience, courtesy or whatever, and the people who design, manufacture, maintain, and sell the stuff all have roles to play.

    For brands that are primarily meaning-based with meaning projected through advertising (e.g. most booze and cigarettes and soft drinks and perfume), the marketing gurus, anthropologists, psychologists, comedians, etc. can handle branding issues without much interaction with other functions. There we get into the ever-spiraling games of storytelling, culture tapping, image manipulation, etc. that culture-workers like to talk about.

    When both performance and meaning are involved, things get tricky because you need cross-department focus on performance attributes but you also need some creative autonomy for both the product designers and the meaning-mongers. So HP’s cool ads about personalizing your PC ran into trouble because there really isn’t anything that customized about an HP machine. Mercedes’s cool new electronics have compromised its long-cultivated reputation as an unusually rock-solid, reliable vehicle.

    Within this framework, I think most of the mystery about the useful reach of the brand concept is dispelled.

  5. Tom Asacker

    Thank you Steve. Sometimes we need to hear something stated in various ways to fully grasp the meaning. At least I do. And I completely agree with you: A brand is a set of customer beliefs about what the experience of buying and consuming a product is or will be like. The “branding” challenge then becomes how best to create said set of beliefs.

  6. John

    @ Tom and Steve (and of course Grant) — thanks for the posts; this is great stuff. But a brand can’t just be a set of beliefs a customer has about the experience of buying & consuming a product — that only allows for the meaning that the customer invests/bestows on the brand. This leaves out the important other direction, by which the brand invests/bestows meaning on the customer. And…are any brands purely performance or meaning based? Aren’t they ALL performance-and-meaning based? Or, to be more obstinate and obfuscate where Steve tried to clarify, isn’t there a way to see “performance” as entirely subsumed within “meaning”?

  7. Tom Asacker

    Hey John. Great points. I was also spinning the distinctions – performance, meaning, hybrid – around in my head. I wondered the same about purely meaning-based brands, but then I thought of generic bottled water, table salt, batteries, pharmaceuticals, and other products which have been proven to be substantially equivalent to the higher priced brand named products. The brand must be created in the pricing, promotion, and packaging; pure “meaning-based.” Don’t you think?

    Regarding performance-based brands, I think I agree with you. They must be a hybrid of performance and meaning, otherwise the “objective” best performing brand would own 100% of the market. Is that a correct assumption? Something else must be influencing performance-based brand decisions besides performance. Or perhaps performance is purely subjective. Although an engineer would certainly disagree. 😉

    And regarding your question, re: one way bestowal of belief, I’m not sure I follow your question. I see brand belief working this way: If I choose a particular brand, what will (or does) that choice tell me about myself, as well as tell others about me. The experience becomes internalized.

  8. Graham Hill


    I can’t help but think that we are all getting carried away with an intellectually interesting exercise in the naming of branding parts, rather than concentrating on what the parts are supposed to do and on making them better.

    I am grateful for the infusion of performance, meaning and performance+meaning thinking. It is great to be able to step inside others’ mental models to look at your own. But my belief is that the two types are a false dichotomy, as both performance (relative to what reference point) and meaning (subject to what mental model of the world) are both firmly in the eye of the subjective customer.

    Pure performance products like own-brand table water also carry plenty of meaning attributes: I am smarter than you because I get the better bargain. And meaning brands like booze also carry plenty of performance attributes; I’m not drinking this, it tastes, well, weird. If you look at it from the customer’s perspective, you can probably do the same for all products and brands.

    Surely, brands are created in the gut, heart and mind of the customer as a mixture of performance, meaning, emotion and a range of other markers. The markers are largely the result of what we are, where we come from and how we would like to be perceived by the world at large. If that is so, then you cannot escape the inevitable logic of co-creating brand meaning with customers in mind. Either with them, or acting as a proxy for them.

    It is time to look beyond the simplistic inside-out model of branding and to bring customers inside. To rephrase a former chairman of Ford Motor Company, “If our brands aren’t developed with customers in mind, they won’t be in the mind of customers either”.

    Graham Hill

  9. steve

    I’m sure there are meaning contaminants in all performance brands and vice versa. And there are some brands where the two are intermingled thoroughly (e.g. Apple). All I’m trying to get at is that if people can’t tell Bud from Miller in blind taste tests, and the bottles are equally convenient and attractive, and their availabiltiy is similar, and every other physical thing about them is similar, then consumer preferences for one over the other are primarily about meanings. (Every now and then they try to float a taste or diet claim, but the beer guys seem to realize this, judging from their advertising.) So there really isn’t much call for the brewmeisters to talk with the advertising folks about brand promises.

    On the other hand, Glad Cling Wrap is really better than the unbranded stuff we have in the drawer if you use it to make a tent over your soup bowl in the microwave. (Discovered that one the hard way–took me a couple of times, too.) For me, now, that is the performance-based brand promise of Glad–while it won’t make me look sexy or call up associations of my childhood, it also won’t collapse onto the surface of the soup during microwaving. If they want to exploit that brand promise, the engineering and manufacturing people will have to stay in the decision loop.

    I have heard that companies whose strategies have been based on performance differentiation, such as P&G or Nike, sometimes have difficulty getting positioned in market segments where meaning-based issues are much more significant than performance (cosmetics, fashion sneakers). Their engineering superegos make it hard for them to sell things on the basis of pure meaning.

  10. Brian Phipps


    I don’t think “branding” is as much AWOL as it is going through a transition in which the traditional brand players of marketers and ad agencies are being gradually phased out, and a new brand team is being phased in. The new (collaborative) crew is made up of brand builders, product innovators and customers, all “in the trenches” as direct contributors to product value and brand value. The big difference is that the brand no longer has to be “sold” to customers. It’s created in the warp and woof of customers themselves, with lots of prototypes and iteration, to keep things fluid and relevant. Adds up to very different model of brand value. Strategic decisions will probably be made by some new incarnation of marketing: 25% Kotler, 25% Cluetrain and 50% Dionysus (Patron Saint of Brands).

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