Resistance to Branding: Why it exists, how to identify it, and what to do about it

The young man was writhing in pain on the makeshift examination chair. He had gone to New York to get himself "branded" and was being followed by the National Geographic Channel as he did so. His experience was part of a documentary program, "Marks of Identity" that talked about a growing subculture in the United States: "body modifiers," who pierce, tattoo, brand, and otherwise mutilate their flesh in order to stand out.

I could not stop staring at the screen. Watching the thousand-degree flame as it scorched the person's skin, I wondered what would drive someone to purposely hurt themselves that way. Aside from the thought that this person has mental problems similar to those that drive people to cut themselves with razor blades, and the sociological explanation that this was a means for the subculture to declare a distinct identity, there was a brand thought. It seemed to me that this person, a teenager in a world now gone fully brand-mad, was branding himself as a way of opposing our commoditized culture. By branding himself, he was saying, in effect, "I refuse to ever be branded."

Like this individual, organizations seek to brand themselves and find it painful, though in doing so they are embracing the commoditized culture that this teen may be rejecting. They spend untold millions of dollars on brand consultants hired to help them devise, develop, and distribute a brand throughout their organizations. Yet in all my years as a consultant - both internal and external - I have NEVER met a client who embarked on a brand project without resistance.

It is so odd, isn't it? The organization knows that brands are more valuable than generics, as a rule. It realizes that the competition is embracing branding. And it knows that without a proactive effort to brand itself, performance and productivity may suffer. Yet just like the youth in the television program, the organization virtually writhes in pain as it begins to undergo the process.

Why do organizations resist branding? Probably, for the same reason that "No Logo" individuals do: fear of losing their identity. For a real brand initiative requires that the entire organization change its collective identity. This means that values change, behaviors change, processes change, and on and on. In the end, everything in the culture is "on the table" and may be changed to reflect the brand. That is huge.

Now, the organization may articulate something much less powerful out loud. It may say that branding is in effect a "new and exciting" logo or ad campaign. But deep down inside, it knows that there is nothing at all superficial about branding. And so it is no wonder if the very same people who are spearheading the brand campaign react with what looks a lot like terror when the abstract concept of a brand starts getting closer to reality.

What does resistance to branding look like? From my experience, I'd say, "Like resistance to any other kind of consulting engagement." Many of the "symptoms" are aptly described in Peter Block's book Flawless Consulting (2nd edition, Jossey-Bass, 1999). Here is a brief summary of what I'd call "the top 10":

  1. Too much information. The client tells you way, way more than you need to know in order to do your job. Example: they flood you with survey data, inundate you with interview transcripts, tell endless stories about "the good old days" and how things have changed.
  2. Procrastination. It's never the right time. This one is away, that one is away. They just started another major initiative. They have to get sufficient funding "to do this right." They're not sure how they want to approach it yet.
  3. They keep referring to "the real world." Well you're a really smart person, they say, but in their industry things are done a certain way. Did you know that? There are technical issues, political challenges, economic constraints, yada yada yada.
  4. Attacking. You didn't interpret the interviews right. You spoke to the wrong people. You insulted someone important. Why interviews and not a survey? What is the statistical significance of your findings? Where did you go to school? Are you aware of this research, or that research? Blah blah blah.
  5. Acting confused. "I don't get it." "What do you mean?" "I'm not sure I understand." "So you're saying that...what?" "You're going way over my head on that one." "Can you repeat what you just said?" "Maybe you can give us a few bullet points, sort of the 101."
  6. Not saying anything.
  7. Seeming to go along with you. You can talk to this person, you can talk to that person. You can have an office. You can recommend anything you like. You have an unlimited budget. You should be smelling something rotten in Denmark.
  8. Suddenly getting better. "You know, now that you've explained what branding is, I think we've got it." "Yeah, your presentation was so convincing, we all went out and got a book on branding. I think we're ready to do this on our own." "We weren't ready before, but now we are all on the same page. We'll call you if we need anything else."
  9. Pushing for a quick solution. "Well, this isn't really an academic exercise - what can we do in the short term to fix things?" "We don't want to dwell on the problems, we have to get to market!"

And last but not least, not in Block, but a close runner-up, is my personal favorite:

  1. "Where's the ROI?" "Can you quantify your results?" "How do we know all this brand stuff is going to get us anywhere?" "What have you done for other clients, can you show us how you saved them some money?" And then you end up showing them regular oranges versus Sunkist, or tap water versus Evian, to prove what both of you already know.

OK. So now that you know how to recognize resistance, what can you do about it? Here is some good advice from Block's book that may get you started:

  1. If you sense resistance, don't ignore it. Treat your feelings as valid data about what's going on with the client relationship. Many of us have the impulse to deny any "distractions" and "get on with the business at hand." But if the client is feeling emotionally uncomfortable, you are not going to get any business done.
  2. Say something about what's going on. Don't attack the client, but don't sugarcoat things either. Be neutral and objective: "You seem uncomfortable about my request to interview the staff about the current values statement."
  3. Shut up!!!!! This is perhaps the most important piece of advice, especially for those of us (like me) who prefer to talk about what we know than listen to what we don't know. But all of your efforts will be in vain unless you can control yourself. Stop, take a deep breath, and L-I-S-T-E-N to what the client has to say. You have to make it safe for them to express their feelings, and they can't do that if your egotistical footprint is all over the room.

If you find this topic useful, this article is just a starter. Though all of us are busy, it can save you a lot of time to read some books on consulting (Block's book is excellent), take a relevant class or two, or simply get out there and network with people in the field (try the OD network,, for example). When you're dealing with the irrational world of human emotions, you need all the help that you can get.

Remember - if you can't get past the client's fears, no brand thing you do will be successful.

Copyright 2004 by Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D.