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The 'brand' word

Opinion, 30 August 2017
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Gareth Kay argues that the industry should be more careful about how it uses the word ‘brand’, as it is in danger of becoming an empty phrase that will not help marketers connect businesses with their potential customers.

The brand word is everywhere. A review of Google's Ngram data shows that after little growth from 1900 to 1990, the appearance of the word 'brand' in books doubled between 1990 and 2015. It's a word thrown around in business perhaps more than any other. But I want to argue that this concept is becoming increasingly bankrupt and unhelpful in driving value for businesses and people.

The first problem with the brand word is its overuse. Fifteen years ago, in his seminal book Welcome to the Creative Age, Mark Earls introduced the idea of the 'bnard'. The 'bnard' was born from a deprivation game he would play where he would stop people using the brand word and instead use 'bnard' in its place. You would then have to define what you meant by this phrase when you used it. Play it in the office today and you'll realise how loosely we throw the phrase around. More often than not, there are far better, tighter concepts to describe what we mean – reputation, product, messaging, etc. The lack of clarity and definition of the very meaning of the term is increasingly devaluing it.

Second, we use the word as if it's a stimulus rather than response. Jeff Bezos described a brand as "what other people say about you when you're not in the room". It's a construct that exists solely in people's minds and the work done by the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute has shown that the most effective way to drive growth is by creating strong, distinct mental associations. Yet when you think about how we throw the term about, more often than not we are describing something we do – a brand strategy or campaign, not the associations we are trying to create. We mistake stimulus for response. This leads to an issue with our over-reliance on the brand. We use it too often to create a false sense of control and a mistaken belief that we manage the brand. The models we use reinforce this: the tools of temples and pyramids are about what we build, not how people respond to them.

The tools we use to shape brands are not fit for purpose. They are used to create simplicity and consistency which run counter to a culture of complexity and change. They tend to create a false sense of control rather than a culture of experimentation and richness. They fight against any desire for evolution. Undoubtedly, concepts like John Grant's brand molecule create a more realistic way to think about how we might better manage the concept of the brand, but models like these are fighting three-quarters of a century of brand management 'best practice' and have yet to find real traction, in my experience, in the meeting rooms of the biggest organisations.

And this leads me to my biggest concern with the notion of the brand: the fact that it is far too theoretical and tends to live (and die) in the meeting room. The very notion of the brand is one that is theoretical and conceptual; it lives in words and diagrams, not in actions in the real world. This has allowed the brand to be reduced to a messaging mechanism and verbal construct that we use to judge whether what we do is 'on' or 'off' brand. We debate brand strategy, not brand actions. We spend our time debating what words should form our brand positioning and what adjectives best describe our brand personality. And it's this theoretical and verbal nature of the brand that makes me most question its verbal use.

Companies fell in love with brands because they saw them as a valuable asset to help drive commercial growth. 'Build brand love and the dollars will follow' was the theory. Yet when more people see brands as being increasingly similar, does this argument hold true? I wonder if there is a more valuable thing we should be chasing today than a new brand architecture. Brands worked best, I would argue, when they closed the gap between what people wanted and what companies produced. This used to be solved by creating verbal and visual language that closed the gap between the commercial and real world. And the primary tool we used to shape the brand was the advertising 'brand campaign'. But given we know that the biggest gap that exists between company and people today is the delivery of experience (the 69% gap between what companies believe they do and what their customers think they do) then what we need is a new concept to help us create new mechanisms to close this gap. Whether we call these actions or experiences, these things that we can do to close the gap between people's expectations and what a company can do are what matters. And as long as we hide behind the brand word, I fear we will not reorient our purpose as marketers.

About the author

Gareth Kay is co-founder at Chapter, San Francisco - a creative company dedicated to solving problems facing pioneering businesses. A strategist by trade, his previous agencies include Zeus Jones and Goodby Silverstein & Partners.

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