all that said … branding theory aside

 brainstorming silliness


“A brand cannot be invented by an advertising agency or a marketing department. A brand is a sum of all its actions.   Who it is, what it does, what the world expects of it. We can only tell its stories, remember the history, celebrate the present. If the brand is passionate, honest and committed, innovative, and at the same time, inspirational, if the brand is true to its history, its passion and true to itself, the world will love that brand.”

Jean Marie Dru & Lee Clow


This is about brands and branding and all that theoretical baloney. Yup. Most of it is baloney. In fact I will remind everyone that there is no universally accepted brand theory <which implies that all of us kind of make it up as we go albeit some better than others>.

** note: I have ranted on this topic before in 2010 in my ‘the bastardization of brand’ article.

Now. In fairness to the whole Brand <B-word> and that thing called ‘branding’ I began this piece with an extremely well written thought on brands by Dru and Clow. It never refers to ‘brand love’ it simply suggests people will love a brand if they do it right. And ‘right’ is not manufactured or created, its natural.  In its ‘naturalness’ this product or service becomes a natural lightning rod for emotion <which is kind of what makes a brand a brand>. It is interesting that these nebulous things we call brands are seemingly intangible, yet, with extremely tangible characteristics. In addition they are very very still <unmoving> in their confidence and character, but active with some sense of momentum to create energy.

Whew. Lots of words written already … and that isn’t what I want to share.

I typically get grumpy when discussing brands so let me get some simple rules out of the way upfront.

Brands are not names or logos or ad campaigns. Those are all the window dressing.

Brands are first and foremost a product or service.

Now. For some reason people seem to forget this and they want to suggest that a brand is a ‘promise’ or an ‘idea’.

Silly. Because in the end a brand is all the expectations, functional and emotional, that reside in people’s heads about the product, service and company <note: I did include company>. The brand is simply an executive summary of the story we have in our heads.

Uh oh. Our heads.

The head is a tricky thing in general, but in today’s world it is even trickier especially when being viewed through the funny lenses of the branding tricksters. What do I mean? From “The Change Book: 50 models to explain how things happen”:

<page 52 in their book>

brands and plantsWhat We Believe In

Four observations at the start of the 21st century:

1.       In English there will soon be more brands than words.

2.       We are using more and more complicated channels and more and more money to reach fewer and fewer people.

3.       Consumers are increasingly better informed about things they buy

4.       There are some initial signs of brand saturation.

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.”

Our trust in brands seems to be as unshakeable and irrational as religious belief.


 “The brand used to represent the company, now the company represents the brand.”

Christoph Eschmann

Whoa. No universally accepted brand theory? blandifiquence pretty wordsSo whenever one of those brand marketing tricksters stands up and says “this is the way to build a brand” there will always be another trickster standing in the wings saying “but, this is the way to build a brand!”.

Well. That is a sobering truth for everyone in the business world to chew on for a while <I bet some people will find the taste quite sour>.

** note: once again, while there is no universally accepted belief there are a number of incredibly solid principles from which how one views a brand and marketing a brand can be discovered – every legacy advertising agency has brilliant thoughts, Ritson, Sharp, Ehrenberg, etc.

Look. I admit. Having worked on multiple products & services, in a world that is increasingly predisposed to sameness, or commodity-like thinking, there are few things in the business world more satisfying than creating a distinct product or service positioning <which inevitably begins the stamp of some brand imprint> that disrupts an accepted perception or predisposition and shakes the mental etch-a-sketch. It does feel good <and I imagine if most of us business folk are truly honest with ourselves, not that many of us can actually say we have truly done it>.

I don’t really care how that brand gets measured, albeit ones that affect culture are the most satisfying, if you actually can stand up at the end of the day and can say that you helped a product or service achieve enough distinct clarity to be actually called a ‘brand’  it is pretty darn satisfying.

But. I do not find it very satisfying to be around when everyone goes off the sane track <and begins the ‘branding insanity’> which is when, typically, someone begins discussing something to do with ‘branding.’

Branding. It almost comes out as ‘convincing’ or ‘explaining to idiots’ or some aspect of persuasion.

I don’t like it. Never have, never will. A brand is what it is. No more and no less than the product or service, and what it actually delivers, at the end of the day. I don’t want to convince or persuade anyone to like a brand, the product/service should stand for itself, as itself, and hopefully liked for it.


Sometimes people aren’t sure how they feel about something and marketing can help nudge, and sometimes even inspire, some feelings. But I cannot inspire made-up <fake> feelings. I cannot tell someone how to feel about something.

If I try to do that, when the rubber hits the road and the user actually interacts with the product/service – or even some activity the product or service is associated with – if they do not feel whatever it is I may have told them to feel, it all falls apart.

beware invincibilityCompound that challenge with the possibility that they feel something good, but different from what I told them they should feel and they are either confused or <worse> unhappy they didn’t feel what you told them to expect to feel.

<my head feels pain after walking my way through that>

Look. I am not sure where the human brain makes connections that make a ‘brand’ possible. No one is really sure <remember … there is no universal brand theory>.

Here is the one thing we know for sure – a brain craves and thrives on understandability <not simplicity, although, the definition OF simplicity is understandable>. Our minds are like a thumb drive <you can judge how many gigs yours has>. The space is limited and not every brand can find a space to be stored. The ones that find a space on the mental thumb drive inevitably have made some type of connection with the brain.

This connection can happen in a myriad of ways, but after simply ‘doing what it was expected to do’ the list is generally tied to some emotional attachment like dreams, hopes, desires, aspirations. Remember. I am not suggesting what is purchased cannot work or not meet a basic functional need, it actually has to, but it has to have more depth & dimension to maintain that brain space <as a brand>.

A quick note on that ‘basic functional need.’

A brand must first and foremost attain a basic perception <strong belief or attitude> in every one’s head to insure it is even in the game as a clear cut alternative.

Bug killers need ‘kill speed.’

Pain killers need ‘speed to relief.’

Vacations need some type of ‘fun index.’

Food needs “taste <some variant of acceptably good>”

You get it. These are not differentiators. They don’t even make something distinct <let alone unique>. Think of it as a price of entry and a cost of survival <or is that ‘cost of entry’>.

Anyway. brain leavesBrands are complex things that live in their own country of economic, social and competitive realities in someone’s mind.

Now. I say that because I admit I go a little crazy when some expert summarizes a brand into a sound bite of “it is ‘x’”. ‘X’ is fairly impossible to attain for something truly worthwhile and likeable and sustainable. A brand is about optimizing its identity <think several letters of the alphabet instead> within all aspects of its country <and culture>.

Oh. And it is constantly sending all these different messages about itself outward to competition <think: those seeking to kill it when it isn’t paying attention> and consumers <think: those who feed its existence>.

With all these messages <or maybe better said …’cues’> being sent out by this complex brand, what is the objective?

The branding ‘expert’s’ holy grail of this wacky thing called branding is to capture the total imagination and soul of people as they think about that product or service <you want to be a brand>. With some ‘expert’s advice’ a company goes down this whole insane branding path with the desire to make the product/service so integral to someone’s life that the line  of separation blurs between perceptions, behavior and the brand to such an extent that it evolves to almost a true unequivocal faith not unlike a religious experience <or faith>. In this weird universe that ‘branding objective’ can be captured by quoting Jerry McGuire: “you <brand> complete me.”

A company can spend gobs of money and build what is referred to as ‘full awareness’ and still never reach that holy grail … heck … they may not even get close to it. Why” because no one ever finds ‘the holy grail.’ Its a myth.


Creating a brand from scratch takes time <and typically some money to redirect as time passes and a shitload of consistency>. And if you are someone managing a portfolio of products <brands> the complexity and challenges increase exponentially.

It is a relentlessly  demanding challenge of ongoing focus.

So why do people do it?

Ah. The prize.

Non branded businesses typically earn gross margins of 3 to 8% and are constantly in jeopardy of being undercut.

Branded businesses typically earn gross margins of 15% or more and enjoy a more loyal <albeit demanding> customer base.

In the end. Despite all this gobbledygook in some fantasy world of ‘branding’ inevitably there is something called ‘reality.’

Brands do not exist in the ether. You can give it characteristics and character and dream about what you want your brand to be or scribble love notes to your brand thanking it for what you think it means to you <which actually sounds a little creepy>, but ultimately it is reality that judges a product or service assessing its brand worthiness — and it judges relentlessly.

Day in and day out.

Purchase after purchase.

Reality is quite unforgiving.


But that is why you aim to have a brand and not just a product or service. Because sometimes we forgive a brand if it makes a mistake.

And, to be clear, we all make mistakes at some point and in an ever increasingly transparent world mistakes have become public domain.

big picture thinking<snide comment: but god forbid any of the branding tricksters ever make a mistake>

All that said.

Branding theory aside, maybe that last thought I shared is the main reason to have a brand <and the idea you want to focus on when aiming to create one>, a business will want to ask for forgiveness at some point.

Some genuine functional consistency and a lot of faith will be quite helpful at that moment.


Maybe that is what a brand is — reality & faith. Just ponder.


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Written by Bruce