There's No Such Thing As 'Branding'

I just had a conversation with an agency executive who was just brought into a major agency to handle a major auto account. We went off topic a bit and discussed strategy.

One thing that stuck with me was his assertion that branding and "brand" as a kind of free-floating "thing" doesn't really exist and that using the term "brand" is a bit misleading and therefore not terribly useful as a reference point for advertisers. In other words, "branding" campaigns are completely meaningless if they don't reflect what a company does and makes and how it acts. And that makes complete sense to me.

I don't think marketers have any idea how sophisticated people really are.

Couple of examples: I just saw a production last week of Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People." It was a major German production brought to the U.S. Toward the end when Stockmann is addressing the crowd about the poisoned baths, they added a long monologue intended to extend Ibsen's message about the majority always being wrong. The additional content was about how advertising and marketing and corporate will is an isolating force turning societies such as they are into populations of solipsistic individuals. And how social media is an oxymoron. They turned on the lights and the audience cheered. They roared. 



Second example: My wife is involved in applied theatre, where they take inner city kids and have them create a show out of improvised sketches. Each show has a theme usually within a trenchant social context. These are kids who got so-so schooling at best, and most are sophomores and juniors. The work they created shocked me out of any illusion I had about people being influenced by so-called "branding." The sketches were brilliant and scathing. One had a kid caught in a tug of war between people representing his friends, neighbors and community who were protesting and trying hopelessly to be heard, and carrying placards, and -- on the other side -- a huge brand mascot for a burger chain carrying a big sign with an "F" for Facebook on it. The mascot won. If these kids get it, everyone else probably does, too.   

All this to make some points about "branding." It's really a trap to think too much about branding as a "persona" that a company and its agency can manufacture like a product, because it can do tremendous damage to a company's actual attributes and reputation. And it can be a tremendous waste of money with no ROI. People can see through "branding." They know when it's invented out of nothing. When you spend a lot of money to talk about what your brand means, about its attitude, its personality, its beneficence, people can really see through that. Your metrics are wrong -- they're bent. They don't mean anything. 

People with frontal lobes know that brands don't really have personalities. There is no such thing as a brand's "soul." There is such a thing as a soul, and you feel it in church. I do, because the alternative is too horrible for me to deal with. But I don't have an existential need to believe your can of beer has a horse in it. I just want a drink after work. In fact I want one now, and I don't care what's in that can as long as it's not soda pop.  

If your customer is someone you fooled into becoming a customer with your cult of personality, then you've got a customer you don't really want. Do you really want someone to buy your cookies because "Hey, you guys are AWESOME; I really liked the thing you did on the Super Bowl and so I bought your cookies and ate the entire box including the box!" Okay -- that's unfair. I understand that when your product is a commodity you have to create some differentiating quality, but the challenge is still to try not to invent something out of thin air. Just because you're entertaining people in Cannes and every other idiot on a podium at a marketing conference is citing either you or Apple doesn't mean consumers care.    

The best you can do with creative that advertises the "brand" is to be funny -- brilliant even -- with great celebrity spokespeople, and a strong emotional message. But trying to get real ROI from it (unless you're the ad agency that convinced the marketer to spend for a big branding campaign) is like trying to figure out the climate by watching a weathervane. 

In my wandering opinion, branding is still in the habit of assuming the ascendence of the cult of "me" even though it's not the 80's anymore. When marketers celebrate the individual to churn up some brand identity, they are just celebrating themselves. When they say they celebrate their social communities and all kinds of communities around the world, they are apotheosizing themselves. If they are helping other people in dire straits they shouldn't talk about it. When they are trying to help talk to people and create world peace, they shouldn't use that as an excuse to create a cult. I can think of at least one major beverage brand that does this and it's disingenuous. 

If you're going to save the world, "just do it" and stop looking for ROI. It's propaganda. But so is a lot of branding. One person stood up in that Ibsen audience and suggested they could solve the poisoned baths problem by bringing in a major brand to pay for the cleanup in exchange for renaming it "The Pepsi Baths." The audience booed as lustily as they had cheered minutes before. Be careful. 

3 comments about "There's No Such Thing As 'Branding'".
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  1. Hart Weichselbaum from the planning practice, November 15, 2013 at 9:22 a.m.

    May not mean much in the world of petrochemical commodities, but I've met an awful lot of young guys who choose their beer brand on the basis of more than thirst.

  2. Lon Bason from Harper House, November 15, 2013 at 11 a.m.

    In the customer satisfaction world, beyond thirst, that would be called "taste preference." Not that looking cool doesn't play into it as well!

  3. Matthew Kessler from Vox Media, December 3, 2013 at 9:16 p.m.

    How about brands tweeting in the first-person?

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