Or, why you’re really just a piece of livestock.
I’ve been thinking about brands a lot lately. Mostly because every time I turn around, whether in a restaurant, on an airplane, or in a business meeting, some self-appointed marketing guru is telling me how I have to “define my brand”, and how I have to “do some brand building” by doing something that “goes viral” using “social media”. When did everyone become an expert on marketing and branding? Before I go on, I’d like to say that I’m not one of these experts. Although I’ve helped a number of organizations refine their pitch or their image as part of my work, I don’t have a degree in marketing, and have never worked with a global marketing firm or ad agency. I do speak English reasonably well though, and I think a lot about why people do what they do, and a big part of what people do is think about what they want, and then try to buy it. So let’s think about the word “brand” for a minute. Do you even know the origin? In Old Norse it meant “to burn” and may have referred to a burning piece of wood, a torch, or a sword, and referred to marking the goods one created with a burn mark. Later, it of course referred to branding livestock. It wasn’t until the 19th century that it referred to a specific product going to market, and for a long time it was still simply a way of claiming ownership, much like a trademark. Although PT Barnum was an early user of the “brand as identity” concept in the 1800′s as the Prince of Humbugs, it wasn’t until the end of that century that slogans and brands began to really take shape, with companies like Ivory Soap and Kodak. After a hundred years of companies “building brands”, many of you probably think you know what a brand is, but do you? If you think you do, there are a few books you might want to read that may get you rethinking things. Like Naomi Klein’s No Logo, in which she expands on the idea that over the last decade or two, companies have evolved to “produce brands, not products“. You know that lingering, ambient frustration and anger you feel toward a lot of products? It’s probably because they’ve sold you a wonderful concept about a product, while shipping the actual production of it overseas and into the hands of people that couldn’t care less about it, since they’re being paid a fraction of what they should be to produce it. An example of this being, in her words, that “Nike isn’t a running shoe company, it is about the idea of transcendence through sports“. No Logo was published back in 2000, but remains pretty relevant today. Klein had an interesting piece in the Guardian recently, in which she reflects on the damage “branding” has done to politics in America. Another eye opener, if you haven’t read it, is Lovemarks: The Future Beyond Brands by Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts, which is an expansive look at our emotional relationship with brands and products. Although released as a hardcover, it’s somewhat ironically laid out in a magazine ad format, with lots of images and heading text. But it’s also incredibly insightful regarding how brands are really like love, in the sense that brand loyalty is rarely based on logic, but instead is an entirely emotional relationship. Which brings me to a metaphor that I personally use that separates simple product identity from “branding”. You may have at some time played the game where someone names a generic product, and everyone names the brand that they associate with it. Like tissue/Kleenex, portable music player/iPod, and so on. To me, this is the real litmus test of branding, and defines a more powerful and subliminal definition which brings the word back to an older meaning that again refers to ownership. To me, the metaphor is all too real that a large corporation’s unstated and collective unconscious goal is not to protect their product or image (they have teams of lawyers to do that), but to literally “own” the consumer, so they can herd them, like sheep. Which sort of takes this all bah-ha-ha-hack to the root of the word, doesn’t it?
No Logo by Naomi Klein “Takes Aim at the Brand Bullies” and looks at the negative impact of the excessive focus on brand building.
Lovemarks: The Future Beyond Brands by Kevin Roberts suggests respect and love might be better than burning images into your brain.