A Brand by Any Other Name…

Without a clear definition, will industry pundits who say branding is irrelevant be proven right?

“Know Thyself” was inscribed above the ancient temple doors of the Greek god of prophecy and enlightenment, Apollo. We should take heed.

The democratization of brands in our modern age is profound, but the democratization of brands’ definition is not. Mutual client suspicions and holding company interests underlie the growing debate of brands’ added-value role.

Competitive advantage is established either upon price or differentiation. As an industry that’s defined by creating differentiation, it would seem that reinventing the meaning of brand helps us feel different. Case in point: A recent online discussion via  LinkedI+n about “what is a brand” yielded within two days hundreds of responses from marketing and agency professionals, all claiming difference via opposing POVs.

These ranged wildly from a brand is a collection of emotions and feelings, a promise, a living system and a reservoir of cash not yet on the income statement to a covenant with the consumer, an engaging story, a reputation, a brain and, my personal favorite, a flag blowing in the wind. Then, of course, we have dictionary definitions and those from the 70,000-plus agencies that operate in the U.S. It’s simple exhaustion.

Is it bad faith (to our clients) to envision ourselves as having unlimited options with no constraints on our freedom of interpretation and definition of what we do (for them)? Is our lack of singular clarity around the definition of brand harming the credibility of what we do? Do we hear doctors debating the definition of health, or architects the definition of architecture?

If you stretch a brand too far, it can snap; the same goes for its definition.

Historically, banks focused on acquiring, growing and protecting their clients’ assets, lending money and making profit out of the assets under management. Then it dramatically switched to banks trading their own spurious products at the sacrifice of their clients.

Almost overnight the compensation model became based on how much money they could make by the volume of the bank’s products they sold as opposed to the number of clients they were managing. We’re all now paying for that thinking.
Once brand became a verb and not just a noun, an entire industry leaped up around it “applying ingenuity to the disingenuous,” according to Fast Company writer Lucas Conley.

Thus many clients and pundits are firing salvos saying branding is fast becoming ineffective, irrelevant and impotent — complimenting Amazon CEO Jim Bezos’ definition as “a brand is what people say about you when you leave the room.”

Perhaps the best definition of the word “brand” comes from a 1998 copy of Webster’s dictionary: “to mark with a red-hot poker.” In many ways, that’s still spot-on because brands need to be red hot in this Darwinian world of social media and empowered consumers who now can prolifically communicate with each other and form the all-powerful “court of public opinion.”

Adweek accepts opinion column submissions. They should be around 800 words in length and exclusive to Adweek. Please send submissions to Roberta Bernstein (rbernstein@adweek.com).

The business goal of any brand is to create more users, new users or new uses by continually innovating to add value to customers’ lives. This we achieve by creating preference (Intel), emotional bonds (Disney), a unique position in the marketplace (Gap), short cuts for customer decision making (Caterpillar), insulation against competitive pressure (McDonald’s), efficiency to marketing and sales efforts (Microsoft) and unifying an organization (GE).

All of this ultimately helps support higher margins (Vitamin Water) with an asset that adds financial value (P&G) and helps attract the best talent (McKinsey) because it represents a powerful presence (Goldman Sachs) that can facilitate alliances and partnerships (The Olympics).

Brands are a business’ greatest asset as evidenced by the rampant rise in the value of intangible assets. In 1982, the net tangible assets on the balance sheets of the companies comprising the S&P 500 accounted for nearly 90 percent of their value; by 2005, it was just above 20 percent. Recently, WPP’s study by BrandZ estimated the value of the top 100 global brands at $2 trillion.

Despite the marketing’s growing valuation, the world of brand definitions is more or less a vicious circle. It won’t be solved soon, and the stubborn conflict for definition is a reminder that in some doleful ways brand(ing) is yet to be defined. In its defense, it does have the capacity for reinvention.

Why? Because branding is not a body of doctrine but an activity — true originality in branding, as in life, comes from turmoil and the constant search for new insights, ideas and true innovation.

We need to be more cantankerous, contrarian and generous with our scorn for bland branding.

Brands have the power to inspire, instigate, enlighten, enrage, entertain and edify, but as long as branding’s riddle remains too unanswered then it will remain an arena of rivalry and weakness between clients, marketing channels and agencies. If we don’t address this, we could be perceived as an industry made up of people who don’t know how to define what it is they’re not supposed to do.

As Groucho Marx would have told us, “These are my principles; if you don’t like them, I have others.”

Dean Crutchfield is chief engagement officer at Method, a brand experience agency based in New York.

Adweek accepts opinion column submissions. They should be around 800 words in length and exclusive to Adweek. Please send submissions to Roberta Bernstein (rbernstein@adweek.com).