“I have come to realize that being trustworthy does not demand that I be rigidly consistent, but that I be dependably real.”
1. “A brand is nothing abstract, like some mysterious essence – it is simply the sum of ideas associated with it.”
2. “Over time, the brand becomes like a molecule. Built up of successive and connected ideas.”
3. “The way to manage brands is coherence, not consistency.”
4. “Brands, like stories, are supposed to have a point.”
John Grant: The Brand Innovation Manifesto
Creator of Brand Molecule Concept John Grant and his theory on The Brand Molecule Concept
Brands have always resided in the minds of people. This means that a brand is actually about expectations <functional, emotional, aspirational> that reside in people’s heads associated with a product, service and company <note: includes the company, seller, itself as part of the equation>. The brand is simply an executive summary of the story each person, uniquely, has in their heads. In other words, a brand is actually owned by people, what they think and believe, not in some business ‘construct.’ To summarize: Business owns products & services offered via the often nebulous hands of culture the organization exudes.
Now. Knowing that and recognizing the dubious control they actually have over their ‘brand’, branding people came up with a variety of control-looking tools. Brand houses, pyramids, probably an octagon or 2, all created to make the business feel they had control, yet, all these constructs did was limit the freedom a brand idea would have (freedom = growth).
It actually turns out that many of the brand frameworks we have been putting in place have actually been hurting the creativity, found in diverse stories, performance. Yes. Consistency encourages ‘less variety of stories delivered more often’. I would suggest this is driven mostly by fear, i.e., overworking consistency implies being at the right place, at the right time, with a consistent message, all the time. It’s a belief that a missed opportunity is a lost opportunity. That is a false premise. Opportunities arise all the time and when they do, quality increases value of engagement more than consistency. It seems we idolize creativity, yet worship consistency. It seems this actually decreases the productivity potential of a brand.
This is why ‘brand molecules’ is actually the most effective way to think about brands particularly in today’s world.
Brand House versus Brand Molecule.
While there are a variety of brand constructs the most utilized is the Brand House framework. It is a template which suggests foundations, pillars and North Star direction. Conceptually it is a fine place to begin, unfortunately, the majority of practioners use it as a rigid construct. This practice reflects a belief in consistency over coherence. Almost a slavish adherence to consistency. I would note that too much consistency not only makes one’s brand dull <in an industry where ‘interest’ is a main criteria to value, relevance, engagement & attention>, not only tends to dull whatever insights the business is grounded in, but also limits the depth & breadth of potential stories to tell.
Is coherence, dividing your brand communication into a range of ideas spread through different experiences and stories a smart move in order to maximize a brand?
I’ll begin with the inherent strength of a molecule versus a brand house.
Simplistically, any vision is not meant to be a one lane highway to a destination. It is meant to provide a North Star for people to get someplace anyway, by whatever means, they can get there <within an ethical framework & principles>. I would argue once you have developed a North Star for your brand all you should care about is accumulating ideas & dispensing ideas that create a mosaic of multicolored lily pad stepping stones toward that vision.
I would also note that making your brand monolothic you essentially create a more fragile brand, business and communications idea. In Taleb terms, multiple ideas moving toward a common goal actually creates some anti-fragile aspects through unevenness. I would also suggest unevenness is more natural than some faux ‘well rounded brand.’
“It’s the totality of the impression that matter”
Stephen King (JWT ‘father of brand planning’)
Dividing your brand communication into a range of smaller ideas, distributed and shared with people creates this antifragility because it permits brands to take advantage of opportunistic engagement which fosters growth & progress in a dynamic brand. Brands are made up of stories (ideas) which can be told in a variety of ways in a variety of places so that customers and potential customers have an understanding of the meaning behind the brand.
Successful brand molecules emerge from an idea ‘atom’ or ‘a brand idea.’ The idea needs to be big & small at exactly the same time: big enough to permit people’s ideas to collect around it and small enough that the substance of it offers a core value proposition.
Let’s call this ‘Role and Substance’. For an idea to have some connectivity and ability to collect valuable ideas around it must have a solid core as well as an idea of what role the brand should play in the marketplace.
Principles are principles.
- Who are I (as a company): character & vision
- What do I offer (functional value)
- How does someone benefit from what I offer
- Why should anyone believe
We should never lose sight that at the core of any ‘brand’ is some product or service which actually fulfills a user need. Without meeting a need a product/service is not anchored to any meaningful sustainable value positioning and simply floats around in a nebulous quasi-hollow perception battle in people’s minds. I would also note that over time reality will trump perception.
What is the role of the brand from a cultural perspective. Call it “the cultural logic behind the brand idea.” To be clear. This is not Purpose, supporting causes or even social responsibility. It is simply “what role does the brand play in people’s minds.”
It could be bigger like Outdoor Voices pushing a more inclusive view of exercise.
It could be what the brand does every time you interact with it like TopShop brings high fashion to the highstreet.
It could be quite functional like Amazon (AI/Tech/Services/Voice) making life easier “as if by magic”
This is not an Ideal or even a vision, it’s a view of how your brand ‘fits in’ to your target’s culture . This Cultural Logic, as noted in examples, can range from extremely functional to highly aspirational. But this ‘logic’ provides the coherence guardrails internally (organizational attitude, behaviors, innovations & vocabulary) as well as externally (tactics, programs, initiatives, engagement plans, etc.).
Cultural Logic can tap into a variety of ‘fitting in’ aspects (Grant):
- New Traditions: habit, rite, leadership
- Belief Systems: views on how ‘things should be’
- Time: efficiency, effectiveness, heightened sense of now, nostalgia
- Herd instincts: initiation, crowd, tribe, craze
- Connecting: socialising, cooperative, localised
- Luxury: concierge, exclusive, exotic
- Provocative: erotic, rebellious, radical
- Comfort: controllable, personalised, safe, cause
Here is an example using a hypothetical car selling software company:
When placed into a cultural logic, brand molecules are made up of an ongoing string of ideas that interconnect with each other, will change over time as new ideas are introduced and old ones are discarded, creating flexibility for the brand (Grant). I would note the ‘cultural logic’ is imperative to avoid developing ideas that are disjointed and when implemented do not add any value to the brand.
I would be remiss if I did not note that the idea of ‘role in cultural logic’ is important in that it is within this thinking the guardrails are crafted. The truth is the Brand Molecule idea can run out of shape if not carefully handled by becoming a random set of thoughts drawn as though they are connected, when in truth they are not. With a vision of cultural role thinking & ideas can vary, yet remain focused on its ultimate destination.
Which leads us to how core ideas beget molecules.
Stories, experiences & ideas.
‘A brand is not about one consistent idea, but rather an ongoing string of innovations.’
Grant suggests that marketing is separated into two alternative and competing approaches:
- brand image
- brand innovation.
Brand image is static, passive, about advertising, messaging, aspiration and the look & feel. Brand innovation is active, dynamic, connected with culture, iterative, experiential and about evolution.
A central tenet of brand molecule theory is therefore the experience and stories because it is through multiple experiences (and stories) in which people can contextually see, feel & view a brand. Through these stories & experiences gain a deeper engagement with what could have been a static feeling brand image. This thought is an extension of Pine/Gilmore (The Experience Economy 1999) who contended that ‘companies stage an experience whenever they engage customers, connecting with them in a personal, memorable way.’
More businesses, particularly those in commodity-like markets where differentiation is often challenging, are now moving away from features and benefits marketing and targeting their attentions on creating experiences and stories for customers to associate the brand with which creates ‘cognitive stickiness.’ This in turn provides their customers with perceived benefits over and above the products and services which they purchase.
I would also note that it was Aaker in 2004 who suggested that this idea of innovation enhances a company’s credibility with its customers. Each new idea that is added to a brands’ molecule adds to a brand’s interest.
Brand image and Brand Innovation intersection. The brand must encompass all business activity under one identity so that it is easily recognizable through all forms of media, or, as Grant says: ‘branding becomes more like the frame around the picture, than the picture itself.’
The molecule, this combination of image & innovation begets the stories which bring the brand to life in the minds of people, and, “brands, like stories, are supposed to have a point.” The ‘point’ resides in its cultural logic – why does it exist, why will anyone benefit from being associated with this brand and how does it fit into someone’s life so I don’t have to persuade someone it has value.
Why you should believe in Brand Molecules.
While I believe brand molecules is the best way to think about having a substantive brand I’d like to close with some thoughts for you to ponder to get you to agree Brand Molecules is the way to look at brands:
What’s going on?
Hundreds of models have tried to explain how to win the battle for consumer attention in a saturated market. What none of these models wants to admit was noted by the communications expert Klaus Bernsau in 2005: ‘although everyone is talking about brands, there is still no universal and accepted brand theory.”
“The Change Book: 50 models to explain how things happen”: Krogerus/Tschappeler
I share this so no one suggests I must use some ‘tried & true’ framework over a Brand Molecule.
The entire concept of building a brand is fraught with peril. In fact. It’s a myth. Somewhere along the way ‘having a brand’ got confused with ‘building a brand.’ People build brands; businesses do things to stimulate the right construction.
Look. Here is a marketing truth. You don’t build a brand <that is the Myth>. You build a meaningful product or service <or a company that creates those types of things> and share its stories.
On occasion culture shifts intertwine with business thinking shifts. Nomadicity & Brand molecules is one of those times. Remember. What is the role in culture becomes the most important question with regard to brand molecules. That said. Other people may ground that discussion in a number of things, I ground it in one basic cultural context: We are all nomads now. <link here >
This does not mean “mobile first” nor does it suggest “I are more disconnected socially than ever before. This simply suggests a more transient relationship with things, people, relationships and even brands. Its not a difficult concept to grasp that an experience centered in a home structure versus experiences gained in fragments, wholes and halfisms outside the home structure is, Ill, different.
Referring back to “I are all nomads” as a cultural context, nomadity has at its core collective experience made up by stories, symbols, social structures, organizational structures, systems, rituals and routines. These elements underpin the assumptions of the brand molecule. While origins of the molecule can be formulated by the company, it is socially mediated and inherently builds up successive and associated ideas via the fact I actually have a Nomad life experience.
Purpose, while a great well needed topic, is getting in the way of the purpose of business itself (note the difference between a capital P and a small p).
I don’t disagree Purpose isn’t a valuable topic for any business, in fact, I encourage it. That said.
- Research does NOT show businesses with a Purpose <source: Shotton “The Choice Factory”>
- Research shows while younger people SAY Purpose is important, what they actually DO, in purchase, is highlight “meeting my needs” significantly more important
- If a company/business does not have a Purpose, a brand cannot have one. In addition. A company’s “Purpose” needs to be 100% aligned from ‘words to actions’ before any brand dare speaking about it.
Brand molecules as collections of ideas. Individuals are a collection of thoughts, attitudes & belief constantly being asked to face each of those things contextually moment to moment. At exactly the same time “crowd wisdom” morphs as a reflection of individuals in a democratic fashion <HBR found that “the wisdom of crowds is more robust than previously thought — it can even withstand the groupthink of similar-minded people. But there’s one important caveat: In order for the wisdom of crowds to retain its accuracy for making predictions, every member of the group must be given an equal voice, without any one person dominating.”>. About the only way a brand can navigate this world is not through consistency, but coherency. Not through some solid unmoving construct, but rather through a molecule collecting ideas.
Look. I have always wondered why the world has been so manically focused on stark simplicity avoiding all the richness and nuance that characterize brands & why we worshiped ‘one word’ descriptions or elevator speeches when we should be cultivating active, multi-dimensional, experiential brands with a variety of stories.