Commentary

Thinking Beyond The Brand

Apparently boring is the new gold standard of branding, at least when it comes to ranking countries on the international stage. According to a new report from U.S. News & World Report, the Wharton School and Y&R’s BAV Group, Canada is the No. 2 country in the world. That’s right: Canada, the country that Robin Williams called “a really nice apartment over a meth lab.”

The methodology here is interesting. It was basically a brand benchmarking study. That’s what BAV does, as the  “world’s largest and leading empirical study of brands.” And Canada’s brand is: safe, slightly left-leaning, polite, predictable and, yes, boring. Oh -- and we have lakes and mountains.

Who, you may ask, beat Canada? Switzerland -- a country that's safe, slightly left-leading, polite, predictable and, yes, boring. Oh -- and they have lakes and mountains too.

This study has managed to reduce entire countries to a type of cognitive shorthand we call a brand.

As a Canadian, I can tell you this country contains multitudes -- some good, some bad -- and remarkably little of it is boring. We’re like an iceberg (literally, in some months): there’s a lot that lies under the surface. But as far as the world cares, you already know everything you need to know about Canada, and no further learning is required.  

That’s the problem with branding. We rely more and more on whatever brand perceptions we already have in place without thinking too much about whether they’re based on valid knowledge. We certainly don’t go out of our way to challenge those perceptions.

What was originally intended to sell dish soap is being used as a cognitive shortcut for everything we do. We rely on branding -- instant know-ability -- or what I called labelability in a previous column. We spend more and more of our time knowing, and less and less of it learning.

Branding is a mental rot that is reducing everything to a broadly sketched caricature.  

Take politics, for example. That same BAV group turned its branding spotlight on candidates for the next presidential election. Y&R CEO David Sable explored just how important branding will be in 2020.  Spoiler alert: It will be huge.  

When BAV looked at the brands of various candidates, Trump continues to dominate. This was true in 2016, and depending on the variables of fate currently in play, it could be true in 2020 as well.  “We showed how fresh and powerful President Trump was as a brand, and just how tired and weak Hillary was… despite having more esteem and stature.”

Sable prefaced his exploration with this warning: “What follows is not a political screed, endorsement or advocacy of any sort. It is more a questioning of ourselves, with some data thrown to add to the interrogative.” In other words, he’s saying that this is not really based on any type of rational foundation; it’s simply evaluating what people believe. And I find that particular mental decoupling to be troubling.

This idea of cognitive shorthand is increasingly prevalent in an attention-deficit world. Everything is being reduced to a brand. The problem with this is that once that brand has been “branded,” it’s very difficult to shake. Our brains have effectively become pigeonholed. That’s why Trump was right when he said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”

We have a dangerous spiral developing. In a world with an escalating amount of information, we increasingly rely on brands/beliefs for our rationalization of the world. When we do expose ourselves to information, we rely on information that reinforces those brands and beliefs.

Barack Obama identified this in a recent interview with David Letterman: “One of the biggest challenges we have to our democracy is the degree to which we don't share a common baseline of facts," he said. "We are operating in completely different information universes. If you watch Fox News, you are living on a different planet than you are if you listen to NPR."

Our information sources have to be “on-brand.” And those sources are filtered by algorithms shaped by our current beliefs. As our bubble solidifies, there is nary a crack left for a fresh perspective to sneak in.

2 comments about "Thinking Beyond The Brand".
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  1. Koen Pieraerts from key performance indicators, January 31, 2018 at 8:36 a.m.

    Seems like the succes of WEBTV is lineair to the increased fees media agencies are getting paid (and all the hidden commissions) on digital adexpenditure. On the other hand, the declining succes of analog TV is lineair to the increased transparancy on remuneration for traditional media (15% AC, AVBs, Incentives...).

  2. Nicholas Fiekowsky from (personal opinion) replied, February 2, 2018 at 1:48 p.m.

    Two points - first on the column, second on web TV vs. analog TV.

    Column: Don't know whether to be surprised that voters exercise less vigilance when casting a vote than when buying a product. Few people are swayed by a single opinion, unless the source is well-known with a strong record of good recommendations in their specialty. While a brand - Apple, for example - may project an image, each purchase in a new area - wristwatch, for example - merits vigilance.

    Scott Adams had an excellent blog post last year about "Two Movies on the Same Screen."
    http://blog.dilbert.com/2017/02/12/good-example-of-our-two-movie-reality/ This speaks to branding - an informed consumer should consider more than the brand's perspective/projection.

    In politics, I've been making an effort to move between the Left and Right sides of the theater. Easier to recognize the gaps on each side, and the different interpretations. This triangulation helps me form my own opinion on each brand's relative merits.

    Particularly intriguing to contrast the movie, "The Post" celebrating the press's courageous publication of classified information about government deception almost 50 years ago and real-time coverage of today's cleared release of information which suggests government deception.

    Point 2: Repeating some earlier comments. It's not the measurement, it's the bulk! Viewers do not enjoy multiple 4-6 minute commercial breaks. Nor enormous cable bills. Those who can stream to optimize their time and budget will do so. Not much "appoinment TV" besides live sports.

    No coincidence that many streamers are younger and tech-savvy. More appealing demographic than the old-timers left in analog land.

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