The Ultimate Question: Are You Really A Brand?

Not everything is a brand. Sorry, but that’s the way it is. People and things may be known, but that doesn’t make them brands. And calling yourself a “brand” doesn’t make you one. Doing that is problematic and simplistic. Real branding is never simplistic. Why would anyonethink it was?

I blame author Tom Peters, who knows a lot about “excellence,” but did branding a disservice. In a 1997 Fast Company article, he said anyone could be a brand -- thus opening a Pandora’s Box of branding horrors, á la personal branding, a philosophy that transformed into routine practice.

To be a real brand you need meaning, differentiation, and the ability to emotionally engage consumers. Sure, you have to be known, but that’s marketing.

To provide clarification, we conducted a study in May that included 1,994 products and services in 128 categories, identifying the degree to which consumers saw them as brands.  A product’s or service’s actual degree of “brandness” (consumer emotional engagement potency) escalates as one migrates from left to right on the horizonal axis of the continuum seen below. As differentiation increases, the sector rises along the vertical axis.




Here's how we defined the various categories above:

Commodity: Undifferentiated products and services, interchangeable and usually sold on price.

Label: The name of a store or manufacturer identifying goods, providing rational information about the product.

Category Placeholder: Products or services with strong awareness. Known, but not known for anything other than occupying a space in a category. Products or services that at one time were brands, but are no longer brands as 21st century consumers define them.

21st Century Brand: A name or symbol identifying goods and services. Strongly imbued with values and meaning. Easily differentiated from their competition, with an individual identity engendering high consumer emotional engagement.

Human Brand: A nomenclature we created to describe living human beings representing 100% of the values of the products or service to which their names are attached. The highest levels of meaning and differentiation serve as living embodiments of particular values “owned” by the human being, which can be seamlessly and believably transferred to products and services.

Famous people online and on TV aren’t brands. They’re celebrities, which does not QED a “brand” make. Models are not brands, but a subset of “celebrities.” Eminent businessmen are not brands. Elon Musk and Richard Branson are entrepreneurs who created brands. There are founders like Henry Ford or King Camp Gillette -- and how their brands have been managed over time currently determines whether they are now “Category Placeholders” or “21st Century Brands.”

“Everything-is-a-brand” plays well in classrooms, Tweets, and refrigerator magnets. But identifying brand bona fides is more critical than ever in a nearly post-COVID brandscape.And where you fall on the continuum answers the ultimate question: “Are you really a brand?”

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