The past fifteen years has been amazing for the practice and profession of branding. Its influence and application is undisputed. Branding is now a primary consideration and investment for any business or organization. It is also part of society’s generally accepted lexicon. For fun, over the next few days I ask you to keep track of how many times you hear the word “brand” in any context and how often you say it. You will be amazed at the number especially given that twenty years ago you would be hard-pressed to hear it at all.
To be fair and accurate, branding did not come out of the blue. Arguably, it has been around in a commercial sense for centuries. In the mid 20th century branding was first documented and formalized through the efforts of Procter & Gamble and other consumer products companies. For the next fifty years that is where branding remained. It was mostly applied to cars, colas and confectionary.
At the turn of this century branding exploded. It was soon employed by every type of business and organization (and in too many contexts and situations). Curiously, there is precious little thinking or writing on why this happened. Let me take a stab at it. Think back to 2000 and 2001 before the Dotcom bust.
- it was a time of “irrational exuberance”. Capital was flowing and it over filled traditional marketing and advertising budgets. That money needed a place to go and it went to branding and brand consultants who sprung up in great numbers with a fresh value proposition. They promised to take a commodity service or product and make it into a category all its own
- eCommerce and digital businesses began disrupting traditional models so branding was employed to help with the introduction of these offers to consumers more comfortable with how things had always been
- marketing was stale and advertising was an expensive black hole of debatable benefit. Branding promised to cut through the ever growing clutter and do so efficiently. The idea being it could provide much more than an incremental gains associated with standard marketing campaigns and would do so at a lower cost
- consumers were tired of being sold. Customer sophistication and greater choice forced companies to move away from the paternalistic broadcast model and seek ways to offer highly personalized and differential value
- everyone needed a website. Today you can develop a robust, appealing site for a few thousand dollars. In the early 2000’s, sites cost businesses hundreds of thousands of dollars providing great margins to consultants who took that cash and broadened their service offerings and spread the gospel of branding
- branding was new and if there is anything marketers like, it is a shiny new toy (this always comes at the expense of the tried and true)
Before you knew it “brand” was everywhere. Prior to 2000 there had been a handful of books on the subject. I lost count after finding forty-one works on branding published in 2014. Eleven have already been released in January of this year. The majority on the subject came out between 2007 and 2010 (and if you read three, you read them all). Soon conferences dedicated to branding were the norm. I have attended or spoken at over sixty in the last fifteen years. Courses, classes, and degrees blossomed in secondary, post-secondary, and executive education programs. Papers, articles and case studies on branding became too numerous to count.
It did not take long for people in business to state and parrot, “everything you do defines your brand”, “brands are experiences”, “your brand is your promise”. People began talking about and building their own brand (how that differs from ones’s personality and character has never been properly outlined or justified). While working at Interbrand, I penned a piece in 2003 fearing that “brand” was becoming a buzzword, “an important-sounding usually technical word or phrase often of little meaning used chiefly to impress laymen” or “a word used in a particular jargon that gains a wider, fashionable, currency”.
“a word used in a particular jargon that gains a wider, fashionable, currency”.
The branding industry must receive its due. It succeeded in making branding ubiquitous and synonymous with standing out but hurt itself due to that very ubiquity. It made itself out to be the magic elixir for any business situation and it was then that I, like many, expressed concerns with how we were positioning the practice and profession. Caution was not heeded. More and more briefs from more and more companies came in wanting “branding”.
This reminds me of a story from my Price Waterhouse days. In the mid 1990’s I was a marketing consultant at the firm. Fads of the management kind were big then including six sigma, reengineering, management by walking around, emotional intelligence, and TQM. The latter prompted a CEO to famously demand, “Get me one of those total quality management programs.” This has always been my biggest fear with branding.
The concept known as Maslow’s hammer definitely applies to branding. It is an over-reliance on a familiar tool. Abraham Maslow, the father of the famous hierarchy, said, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” This is when branding should have disciplined and schooled itself to maintain relevance. But remember, it had become an industry and it was growing.
Today, branding has become what advertising was in the Mad Men era. Highly stylized, shiny, and cool but largely standardized, prescribed and frequently devoid of substantiated benefit. When the ad industry was attacked for similar concerns it developed more and more award shows in attempt to prove its value. No other industry rewards itself more than advertising, not even the entertainment industry. Saucy pundits suggest this stems from an insecurity of being found out.
The branding industry has burnished its reputation in a different way. You may have noticed an abundance and growing list of brand rankings. This has resulted in a website that itemizes and ranks the aggregate of all published brand rankings (www.rankingthebrands.com). It lists sixty in one category alone. In total there are two hundred and eighty rankings on the site. The consultancies, research houses, and media outlets are doing branding a disservice with all these lists of “top” brands. It is beginning to look defensive.
Now it is time for an overdue confession. I have made my career in branding and marketing. I have written, spoken and consulted on the subject and still do. I have been a pioneer, an unabashed proponent, and fan of branding. But here is the difference. My definition of branding differs from the all encompassing fix-all and pop culture sugar pill it is drifting alarmingly towards.
My definition of branding differs from the all encompassing fix-all and pop culture sugar pill it is drifting alarmingly towards.
Branding is a highly strategic and creative lever or tool (but one of many). It needs to be wielded as a rapier not a broadsword (it is not a panacea). It has to prove return (tangible results talk). What attracted me to the profession and what keeps me engaged in the practice is how it facilitates the connection and builds the relationship between real people, not consumers, with a brand.
Whereas marketing speaks at you and tells you what to do and buy, branding looks for a fit. It credits people with intellect and reason. It respects. On all levels this appeals to me even in the commercial sense. Something we professionals do not emphasize enough is how branding, when done right, produces and rewards loyalty for both sides in the relationship. If there is magic, then this is the magic of branding.
Unfortunately, most of the branding practiced today is more like the stale marketing and questionable advertising it once promised to supplant. When you become an industry, things change. Big business means big compromise. Branding now runs the risk of compromising the values that it originally professed. It has certainly impacted quality. The old expression that states that the ‘way in which the mill operates becomes more important than the flour it produces’ applies to much of the branding we see today.
Branding is now a factory. An assembly line. Consultants make money in repeatable, familiar processes. Methodologies equal margin. What spits off the end of that assembly line is all too similar. This is sadly ironic given differentiation is a key component of branding. And here lies the rub, there is precious little differentiation in the practice and profession of branding today.
There is precious little differentiation in the practice and profession of branding today.
Those who deliver branding are increasingly undifferentiated. Price is becoming the preeminent determinant of brand consulting services rather than the overall value these firms promote which is said to be made up of expertise, creativity, industry knowledge, global reach, relevance, among other previously germane factors.
Pricing pressures may only seem to impact those offering branding services. That is not true. It impacts the profession. Now many of the big shops offer their services at a discount. They say this is to assist start-up businesses who have tight budgets but that is not true. Professional service branding is standing on a precipice. Lower fees and taking margin haircuts is recognition that the market doubts your value and has begun to look elsewhere for solutions.
There is plenty of analysis and writing on branding at a theoretical level (actually far too much). So much so that it is generic and bland with few new insights. The same undeniable drivel is repeated over and over. What we need is much more analysis and writing on the profession and delivery of branding. Trusted brands are ones that behave like people, showing empathy and being open, real and even flawed. One pillar of branding has always been authenticity. So let’s get real.
We need to return to the principles of branding laid out fifteen years ago but with all of the knowledge and communications tools we have today. In short, we need to rebrand branding. Branding is not a fifteen year fad. It will live on. But only if it can credit people with intellect and reason. Only if it respects. When done right, it can produce and reward loyalty for both sides in the relationship. This is the magic of branding.