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Branding Talk Isn't Helping Your Company. Here's What Should Replace It

Branding is a once useful concept that’s now irrelevant, argues Brian Millar. So try this: Stop talking about your brand for a month.

Last week, WPP brought out its league table of the world’s most valuable brands. It values Apple at $183 billion and McDonald’s at $95 billion. Meanwhile, over at Omnicom’s Interbrand, they reckon that the Apple badge is worth a mere $33 billion, whereas McDonald’s is worth $35 billion. So who’s right? Neither of them. I don’t think that you can value brands, because they’re just a convenient fiction. Once they were a useful way of looking at the world. Now that such a massive industry has developed around them, they’re actually distorting the way companies do business. Is it time to stop talking about brands and branding altogether? I think we should all have a try.

"Essentially all models are wrong," said George Pelham-Box, one of the most influential statisticians of the 20th century, "but some of them are useful." Let’s remember that branding is only a model of the way that consumers think about products and services, so by definition, it’s wrong. But that doesn’t mean it’s not useful—so long as we don’t get carried away by imagining it’s the truth.

Was the Think Different campaign really a branding coup? Or just the outcome of deeper changes?

Think of maps: A simple map pretends that the Earth is flat, and that’s fine for getting you across town. But if you try to navigate a plane across the Atlantic on that principle, you’re going to get a big surprise when you come in to land. (That’s why the route your long-haul flight takes looks like a curve on the seatback map.) All these "brand valuation" metrics are doing something similar: treating a flat earth theory as if it’s the truth. And they’re landing in the wrong place.

I used to work with Orange Telecom, a late-starter in the cellular market that became one of the biggest consumer brands in Europe. Hans Snook, its eccentric founder, would happily talk all day in his office about science fiction, colonic irrigation, or feng shui. Only one topic was taboo: the Orange brand. Brands were, he maintained, a by-product of having great products and communicating them well to people. Power stations that generate a lot of electricity probably have a lot of steam coming out of the chimneys. That doesn’t mean to say that the engineers stand around working out how to make more steam.

In his recent book, (excerpted recently on Co.Design), my old colleague Ken Segall describes Apple’s "Think Different" advertising campaign. But ask yourself: When was the last time Apple did a pure brand ad? Fifteen years ago? Apple went from a challenger to a leader when it stopped focusing on its brand and made its products the heroes of its communications. ("I’m a Mac, I’m a PC" were product ads. Trolls who beg to differ, please scroll down. I will be with you shortly.)

If you promise something clearly, deliver on that promise, and repeat the process, you build strong emotional links to your company with certain consumers. But that’s where the value resides: in my head and your head, and your mother’s head. And the stuff inside my head is my property.

If brands exist at all, they exist in the minds of consumers. I can switch my brand of search engine at a moment’s notice. Bank accounts and makes of automobile are a bit more hassle to discard, but I can still change my mind about them. But that’s not how brand valuation models see them. They act as if our thoughts are a company’s property, like a factory, or a warehouse full of boxes. The brand model, once a wrong but useful way of looking at the world, has become the product. A study by Interbrand and JP Morgan concluded that brands account for about a third of the average public company’s valuation.

After so many years focusing on pure branding, Coca-Cola has embraced design thinking. Guess what? The brand is improving.

Some smart people have begun a backlash against companies that seem to exist to build brands as an end in itself. Management guru Gary Hamel has repeatedly criticized Coca-Cola, accusing it of concentrating on shoring up the Coke brand at the expense of exploring new markets and keeping up with changing consumer tastes. As a result, Coke had to play expensive catch-up games as its market was squeezed by bottled water, new-age herbal drinks, smoothies, energy drinks, and iced tea. But when you’re Coca-Cola, and you’re told that your most valuable property is your brand, then you’re going to concentrate enormous energy into building it—even if that means that you ignore what customers actually want to drink.

In his excellent Obliquity, John Kay explains how the richest people are not those who set out to make money first and foremost, the most profitable companies don’t think too hard about their profits, and great discoveries are often made by people who are looking for something else altogether. Many of the world’s most valuable brands are created by people who don’t ever talk about branding.

So I’d like to propose an exercise where your company bans the word "brand" and the idea of brand building from your meetings for a month. Who knows what you might achieve in that time instead. You might even start to build a great brand.

[Image: JOAT/Shutterstock]

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  • Henry Kaye

    The biggest problem with Branding is that Branding doesn't equal Brand. With the many variables that constitutes the Brand (or image) people have of a product, service or business, much of it lies outside the direct control of the Brand consultant, which is how Branding sells the end as the means.As have been mentioned before for Branding to be taken seriously in business, you MUST tackle the means (more "how" to do, than "what" to do!) and be realistic with expectations. Don't focus on measurement unless selling the company as it's only worth what people are willing to pay, products or selling companies included.Hope that helps.—Henry Kaye

  • Ian Hartsough

    I believe that much of this article ignores some key considerations for branding in a digital age.  The idea that a great product can become a
    great brand is half right.  Great brands
    are lived, not made.  That is a more true
    and involved process than ever in the digital age.


    Sure, you can build a
    strong identity through a superior product. 
    But, brand-building necessarily involves all of a business’
    activities.  To drift blindly in the sea
    of communication options and opportunities is to resign your business to
    drowning in the deluge of terabytes of information produced daily.


    Because of the
    connectivity that digital has enabled brands are now the entire company.  Where corporate social responsibility
    projects, manufacturing practices, messaging and other public relations could
    at one time be divorced, they are now more intertwined than ever, interacting
    via a diverse set of digital communication channels to spawn “brand x”.  And, mobile connectivity will only magnify
    this effect. 


    Is it locally
    sourced?  Where was that
    manufactured?  Is it BPA-free?  What are the workers’ contracts like?  Is the plant environmentally friendly?  The answers to these questions do more to
    influence consumers’ perception of “brand” more than ever.  Because every part of their business is now
    on display through media, social and otherwise, businesses must now walk the
    walk to build brand.


    Does this mean that
    walking the walk is enough?  Not by a
    long shot.  The requirements of
    professional, polished and creative communication ideas don’t go away – they
    are merely applied to a different strategy. 
    Not hiding from aspects of a company’s identity might be what spurs some
    of the greatest creative ideas and engaging experiences for consumers. 


    So, keep building your
    brand in all the ways you can.  The
    dimensionality and completeness of a brand may be what connects the most
    consumers to your product in the long run.  

    -Ian Hartsough
    Brand Planner, Tribal DDB
    New York

  • Henry Kaye

    The biggest problem with Branding is that Branding doesn't equal Brand. With the many variables that constitutes the Brand (or image) people have of a product, service or business much of it lies outside the direct control of the Brand consultant, which is how Branding sells the end as the means.

    As have been mentioned before for Branding to be taken seriously in business, you MUST tackle the means, be realistic with expectations. Don't focus on measurement unless selling the company as it's only worth what people are willing to pay, products or selling companies.

    Hope that helps.

    —Henry Kaye

  • Capsule Design

    This is an interesting quote, "After so many years focusing on pure branding, Coca-Cola has embraced design thinking. Guess what? The brand is improving." How do we know the brand is improving if we don't measure?

    I agree, the focus on design and simplification has been a tremendous story for Coca-Cola, but if we're not going to talk about brand, how will we know? It is impossible to have a successful company without a brand, it comes with the success. You can certainly have a weak brand and strong financials and you can certainly have a strong brand without much for profitability (just ask a highly visible banana brand). It does reside in the memories of all who have interacted with your brand, and it is embodied in a promise, this isn't new. But, understanding the nuances of this promise is essential to the strength of any brand and it isn't talked about enough. 

    While the act of measuring does seem to put emphasis on the "brand" alone (and perhaps advertising as an industry), what it really should do is put emphasis on the intangibles. Some other items in the intangible bucket are: copyrights, product and process patents, other trademarks, trade secrets, etc (intangible assets). It is good to put a value to something, to discuss it and it is good to talk about where that value originated. You can be certain it wasn't from just talking about it, but rather designing something (designing better products, services, experiences, etc). The emphasis is clearly on the word: Design. 

    My advice: focus on building a strong brand using the principles of Design.

    Design something better.

    Aaron Keller

  • arthurascii

    I don't write the captions... You could tell the brand is improving if you sell more cans of fizzy pop, or can charge more of a premium for them.

  • Cezar Cavalcanti

    Just one thing, The Apple's Brand is your products and your innovation as well. I think you have the wrong concept about what is brand. 

    Brand is the service, the product, the inspiration, the experience. It's just a "place" where the people put the perceptions and emotion.

  • Lucy Woodward

    I agree, 'branding talk' isn't helping designers help companies. 'Brand' is a mercurial beast. I've long thought it is the most over used and semantically abused word in the design business - despite my career. I've sat in many meetings where the client, the creative director and myself (a 'branding' consultant') have discussed the clients brand; and each have come away with a different understanding of what the 'branding' brief entails. As an industry we've flogged brand and branding; we've wrapped it, re-invented it so much that it's lost touch with its source. And when the worlds largest companies have their 'brands' valued in the billions, it's critical we get grounded.

  • Adrian

    So what you're telling me is that if I walk into a store and see two identical t-shirts made of the same material, with the same fit, one with a home brand label and one sporting my favourite snowboarding company logo, I will buy the snowboarding label 100% of the time based on product alone?

    We know that consumers will deliberately avoid labels that they don't see as representative of how they view themselves or how they want to portray themselves to their peers, they will also spend large amounts of money to purchase similar or inferior products within a category due to the logo associated with it.That's what a brand is - the intangible value that companies create for themselves through good feeling towards their products. You can't sell 'cool' it's not a physical asset, yet for generations people have made purchase decisions on products that they associate with on some higher level.

    I don't disagree that focusing on the foundations of marketing, starting with a good product, are a requirement to get a foothold into the market place, but if you think that the intangible values associated with a companies attitude, and the feelings that are associated with this, have no bearing on the value of a company, you're kidding yourself.

  • arthurascii

    So are you buying into the logo of a company that's full of people who love snowboarding as much as you do, who support snowboarding, who talk about it in a way which you like, who are visible at snowboarding events?

    Or are you buying it because you thing 'those guys are really great at branding.'

    I hope it's the former. It would be sad if it was the latter.

  • Addison Whitney

    'Brands are a byproduct of great product'. This is a great statement. Companies who worry ad naseum about their brand but do not have the goods or product to back it up and clearly wasting their time. 

  • Ivan Colic

    I love this quote s well. I really hope that the passion that goes into service and products will once again be the reason people start relationships with brands as opposed to the "cool" factor of a brand.

  • Dawn Nicole Baldwin

    Agreed. I think the problem lies with people defining the concept of "brand" differently.

    Those who are more concerned with the packaging vs. the "promise" (and how consistently that promise is delivered) are going to run into trouble. 

  • Andrew

    fun.  but i think a lot of brand people are just tired of the word going from edgy to overplayed and bastardized.

    clearly any succesful business needs good product and a solid image for the consumer to identify with.  however, either one can be stronger than the other and compensate accordingly, and you will have a succesful business. 

    but I love branding and the concept of it too much to knee-jerk away.  reality is most people don't understand the totality and inter-related complexities of branding, heck I got a long way to go myself.  but i see no reason to abandon the word, even if it is being mis-understood.

    good people do good business, and good brands are born and evolve.  no need to strip away the basics - it's all natural selection in the end and the intelligent brands and businesses will succeed, even if we support them or not.

  • Ken

    A good product will become a brand. Keep in mind the visual identity of a brand will reflect the taste of the brand in accordance with the fashions and trends of the day.

  • Mary Walsh

    There's a point missing here. I agree on building great products first, but without branding - they don't exist. This not talking about the brand can be applied to companies that talked too much and need time off to clear their heads. Because branding is more than packaging or running a TVC. When Branson jumps of an airplane, it's branding. When Jobs wore the same turtleneck and jeans - also branding. This is why the companies have a department that does only branding so the rest of the company can be focused on building great products. You make it sound like the whole company thinks and develops brands. I do my job for the product and my marketing department tells me what to do with it's branding.  The guy from the Orange had a taboo topic on branding yet he wanted to communicate well his fine products. Contradiction much? Btw. love the article, it's excellent debate starter! Cheers.

  • Barry Quinn

    I agree MARY, this position only makes sense if you have a very narrow view point of what a brand is and what the act of branding is.

    A brand is a promise to a consumer. Its not a marketing campaign. If you promise amazing products or customer service and don't deliver, you fail. The very best brands believe in their promise and the entire company revolves around those beliefs. If you think branding as an appendage you add to try and create non-existent value you have completely missed the point. 

    Apple is successful because there is an Apple way of doing things and consumers love the way they do things. The product, the store, the experience, the ads etc all build the brands allure.

    The act of branding is a different thing than the brand itself. Branding is about creating ownership. No one puts cow on the side of a cow, they brand the cow as a form of ownership. The same goes for companies, successful brands claim ownership of a set of values, ideas or abilities. They can only own them if they are successful in delivering on that promise.

    Don't confuse branding with bad marketing and ineffective product development. 

  • Dan S

    When Apple releases a new product people think it's going to be great, but make no mistake, that has nothing to do with Steve Job's limited wardrobe fare or aggressive branding efforts on their part.  The reason people thinks Apple makes great products is because they have a proven track record of making great products.

    You can argue the exact opposite of Microsoft with regard to Windows.  Their recent track record of making questionable products will result in a hesitant reception of Windows 8.  Microsoft could spend all of the money in the world on campaigns designed to convince people that their products are great.  At the end of the day, people will still be skeptical because Microsoft has failed to deliver great Windows systems lately.  The Windows brand has transformed into a clunky operating system with a deprecated interface and a lot of bugs/ virus problems.

    Best of luck to anyone trying to convince consumers otherwise using clever marketing campaigns, especially if the product is anything short of stellar.

  • marcusosborne

    There is a law out there somewhere that suggests, “If
    something is done wrong often enough and for long enough, it becomes right.”