The Branding Exception

9 June 2009 Jonathan Salem Baskin

In an extract from Branding Only Works on Cattle, author Jonathan Salem Baskin explains how recent perceptions of branding have diminished its value.

We think about brands based on a mid-20th century exception to the rules of commerce, a blip in the continuum of activities that have driven human behavior since civilization began. What we presume to be eternal truths are really the product of a brief interlude of mass media and a willing consumer public that no longer exists.

No wonder marketing is in a crisis these days.

For a few thousand years of human history, there were no such things as brands. Purchasing or bartering was personal, regularly embedded in the knowledge and trust inherent in the tribe or community, and usually involved a specific, demonstrable value that the goods or services offered. In subsistence economies, you didn’t trade for an image of something if it meant that you were going to starve.

That’s why we don’t find branding budget line items in the ledgers of Delft china makers, or image advertising expenses on the parchment of de’ Medici business plans. You’d have to squint through one eye to make the case for seeing branding anywhere in the world until the late 1800s, when the founding generation of America’s branding gurus — people like J Walter Thompson, Carl Byoir, Ivy Lee, James Ellsworth and Bruce Barton — literally invented the concept.

These businessmen were born of a unique moment in time: economies, society and technology were undergoing massive change, bringing people together and enabling giant business conglomerates. They worked for the first-ever national companies, for which they created corporate reputation as a replacement for the reputations that individual businesspeople used to earn for themselves directly by their actions.

This is when we see companies first described as having personalities and beliefs via new media, such as national news stories, ads and, eventually, radio and TV. It helped immensely that consumers believed what they were told. The ad people talked about brands and it worked on a mass scale. The golden era of branding was a command-and-control phenomenon, no different at least structurally than the fascist and communist propaganda machines that had preceded it.

By the 1960s, however, the golden era of branding had already begun to show signs of wear. The postwar boomer generation started to come of age, and with them came an epoch of dramatic cultural, technical and social change. Individuals and society alike became more critical, self-conscious and self-focused. But, like the definition of the word, this revolution represented less invention than a return to the older way of living. People realised that the declarations and contrivances of traditional branding were unbelievable, disconnected or irrelevant.

"Your entire company is in the branding business, for the brand resides in its real-time behaviors, not in its words or the colors used in its brochures."

However, instead of changing their definitions, businesses redoubled their commitment to branding and to telling people what to think. That’s why we’ve seen marketing communications lose its efficacy over the past few decades. There’s nothing wrong with the media, but rather the messages we choose to deliver, so much so that today’s consumers have all but abandoned branded communications for anything more than entertainment or momentary diversion.

In fact, we now see the behaviors that the spotlight obscured: our ‘new media’ — blogs, chat rooms, instant messaging and virtual world communities — are really just snazzy old ways of sharing and consuming. People have reverted to the same behaviors that have driven commerce since those cave walls were first painted, relying on transparency, authenticity, interactivity, virtuality, applicability and sustainability.

The brief 20th century interlude that was characterised by top-down, authoritative mass media, and its trusty henchman branding, is over. Brands are an artifact of a moment in time, a golden age when they could be established, declared, delivered and relied upon.

Consumer behavior today is a far cry from what it was 50 years ago. It’s time to update our model and applications. This new environment requires a new definition of brand, or a recognition of the older truisms that dictate the who, what, where, when and why of consumer purchases. No matter how much we marketers try to translate our outdated ideas of branding into new technologies and creative ideas, we’re doomed to fail to connect with our buyers.

Think about it. You’ve seen every other corporate department reborn over the past decade. Technology, management science, economics and culture have caused gut-wrenching change in every area of the modern corporation, from individual job descriptions, to the functions of entire departments. Conversely, marketing has remained an island, fiercely committed to its outdated approaches:

  • Branding still views consumers by their supposed mental states, while the rest of the company sees behaviors.
  • Marketers track feelings and other intangibles, while their brethren manage specific actions.
  • Branding measurement is qualitative, while the rest of the company is quantitative.
  • Marketing sees IT as a minor tactic, while the enterprise uses it as business strategy.

It’s time for us to recognise this underlying truth, and revamp our approach to defining and delivering brands. For branding to mean something, it has to do something, and I think it can. We can take it out of the realm of thought and connect it to action, relying not just on what it says, but rather on what it does.

This would represent an enormous strategic and tactical change, on par with shelving Ptolemy’s circles and gears, and replacing them with a more accurate, functional, and dependable model. It would mean coming to terms with the idea that brand isn’t a logo, ad, or creative invention. Your entire business is the brand, or, more specifically, brand is behavior. What matters is what you do, what your consumers do, and how all of those behaviors intersect with, influence, conflict with and ultimately yield purchase behavior. As such, the responsibility to help deliver those purchases resides in every department (and with every external vendor and partner).

Your entire company is in the branding business, for the brand resides in its real-time behaviors, not in its words or the colors used in its brochures.

The idea of your brand? It was an exception that no longer applies.

Branding Only Works on Cattle is available from John Wiley and Sons.