Hangups About Branding

Though in my head I'm a brand academic, in real life I am paid to be a communications practitioner. And in that capacity I have been feeling fairly hung-up lately, stuck in a "doom loop" of questions like: 

  • What is a brand? What you mean to say (the intention) or what people think you've said (the perception)?
  • Are brands good or bad? Buying brand names makes me happy and it is nice to have a shortcut for figuring out which products are better than others. At the same time, I know that branding is about making money, so a lot of it is just selling an illusion of superiority.
  • Is branding the organization a waste of time? It is easy to brand a product (because you can make it look like whatever you want and it can't talk back to you), but extraordinarily difficult to brand an organization-to get people to consistently deliver on a concept through a set of "branded" behaviors. Are we just torturing ourselves trying to make this happen?

And perhaps the most painful:

  • Am I practicing branding if the word is not in my job title? I know I incorporate principles of branding into everything I do, but at the same time, I do not "own" the brand where I work. Does that make me less of a brander?

I am not the only one with these hang-ups. They are visible in the seemingly endless debates over things like "
positioning" (which is really branding), whether brand can be equated with other things, like reputation, and even whether branding is a discipline you follow or something you make up as you go along. (For a good description of the current state of logical lockup in this industry, see Don and Heidi Schultz's new book, Brand Babble.)

How is a person to work through these issues? For me, the journey is the destination-I try to work it through by looking at everything in the world around me: books, magazines, the newspaper, TV, stores, the workplace, and so on. Like I said, I am not fully resolved about any of this right now. But if I had to articulate the state of my thinking, here's what I'd say:

  • Your brand is how you are perceived by others - what people think you've said. Unfortunately, though, you do not control what other people think. The only way to manage your brand is to approach it the opposite way: think about what you mean to say, and try to convey that in word, image, and deed. All other things being equal, if you are consistent about it, the resulting perception will align with what you intended to communicate.
  • Brands are ultimately good for people, if only because they save time that would otherwise be wasted comparison-shopping. Aside from that, they are a harmless source of joy and satisfaction. However, they can also be really, really bad - leading people to waste time and money in pursuit of fool's gold. The way to deal with that issue, of course, is to tell the truth about the product (if you're a brander) and give yourself a reality check if you find yourself getting obsessive about a brand (if you're a consumer).
  • Branding the organization is inevitable, so not a waste of time. Simply by virtue of existing and interacting with others, the organization is branding itself. Therefore, branding is going to happen whether the process is managed or not. The choice is only whether to approach the brand proactively, or ignore and deny it and hope that the issue goes away.

What about that last question, "Am I practicing branding if it's not in my job title?"

Well it's probably pretty obvious at this point-I do believe that I am practicing branding, even though I'm not a chief branding officer or even a brand manager. For now that my eyes have been opened to what branding is and does, I can never really get away from it. I can call it different things - "communications management," "messaging," "reputation," "consistency of tone," what have you - but inside I know that every single action that I take has an impact on that nebulous thing we refer to as "the brand." It's just difficult to bridge the gap between my awareness of this, and the incredible complexities associated with actually dealing with the brand at work (multiple brands, really) on a day-to-day basis.

(I just thought of another question. Do people who are called "brand managers" really manage the brand just because the word is in their job title? Or are there other people who have more impact on how the organization lives the brand, but who aren't formally recognized for performing that function? I strongly suspect the answer is yes.)

What is the brand, ultimately? What should it be? Who should manage it? How should it be implemented? How do you know when your brand is strong? All of these questions are still outstanding, and they may never be resolved. Yet like it or not, all of us are agents of the brand of whatever organization we work for, and have a responsibility to do the best we can on its behalf, even though our knowledge, understanding, and resources may be limited. This is true wherever we work, and whatever words may be in our job title.

Copyright 2005 by Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D.