However, the word ‘brand’ is being used to describe something that matters to me and needs to be understood. That something is very different from what the term brand currently means. Rather than banish the word entirely, I’ll treat it as a sort of category error and work my way to an alternative meaning of brand.
A person can have various represenations, a photograph or a portrait, which give others an idea of what he or she looks like. It is an image, a projection of likeness. Everyone knows it is not the real person and that often such representations may look rather different or even mislead.
Branding is the art of creating an image of a company. Like a photograph that is carefully staged and edited. As technology progresses, branding gets clever and innovative. Still, the best it can do is a ‘hologram’. Rich media, marketing campaigns, reputation management, PR, advertising and now online and social media ‘engagement’. A vast range of projections enabled by media and technology. And just like with holograms, the more realistic they look, the more shocking it is to discover you can’t talk to them or shake their hands, any ’social’ gestures go right through it. This is because it is a projected image, there is no person made of flesh and blood.
Most branding is about image and its projections. When using the term branding, I prefer to think about it as identity and behaviour. Because identity of a company and its behaviour existed long before branding was invented as part of business. That kind of branding comes from the other side of the reality fence. It is driven by behaviour rather than projection.
John Dodds who writes interestingly on such matters has this to say:
It refers to nothing more and nothing less than reputation, reputation you earn by your behaviour or, more realistically, reputation which other people (customers or not) confer on you because of that. It’s not something you impose on others.
The reason for image branding was the nature of distribution of the brand projections. There were channels, mass media, who mediated what companies wanted to communicate. So identity became an image and behaviour and communication messages.
The web has created, unwittingly for most part, an alternative to building what in industry circles counts for a ‘brand’. It resurrected the ‘old ways’, warts and all, of creating reputation by behaviour. There is one major difference between the old times and the web times – before my identity was determined by others and my behaviour was often judged out of context or in a context that was hostile to the individual.
The brand as identity perspective has two major implications. One has to do with the relationship of company with its employees. The other with business strategy.
First is the Who – the balance (or lack of it) between the corporation as legal entity, its management and employees, its structure and culture. These pulls and pushes within the company will determine its identity and its behaviour. Explicit knowledge of this can help companies understand who they are and why.
Then it is the What – the actions, behaviours, based on the raison d’etre of the business. A common mistake is to talk of strategy when meaning tactics. Strategy is the question of what to do and whether to do it in the first place. Tactics is about how to get to where strategy points.
This is all very well but what is a humble communications or marketing person to do? They can’t start reviewing or changing the company’s strategy. But they can start thinking less about projections and messaging and more about identity and behaviours. A hint: One-way communication is messaging, two-way communication is behaviour.
To sum up, the bad news for the branding folks is that messages and projections are not what they used to be. The good news is that a company can define its identity and behave according to who they want to be. That sounds like a good trade-off to me.