Skip to content

Brand Angst

Doc Searls has been on a tear over the past few years about clearing up a lot of the “bullshit,” as he’d probably put it, around brands and marketing. As you’d expect from one of the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, he’s trying to connect together the producers and (to use a word he’d hate) the consumers.

Disintermediation and remediation: the clever diction of the second indicating that something is being fixed rather than evolved.

As you, dear readers, can probably guess, I’m largely with Doc Searls on this train of thought, at least in IT. I’m not sure if I want a conversation with the laundry soap community or the people who cut up my chicken pieces. I just want the soap to be cheap and work, and the chicken to be cheap and healthy. That said, other people may care more than I do. As I understand it, there’s plenty of people (and the resulting revenue) interesting in talking about yogurt. Insert some long tail magic here ;>

What is a Brand?

In response to a thread on IT Garage , Joe Andrieu summed up brand as a tool well:

No matter how disintermediated you make the markets, people must make a final decision about buying or not buying. That decision rarely comes down purely to price. People incorporate a wide range of factors when making a purchase and at the end it boils down to whether or not they trust that purchase to create more value in their life than any other option, including buying nothing. That trust is a reflection of the brand and their purchase an expression of faith in that brand.

Trust, identity, and relationship are the three words I encounter the most in the world of brands.

The Traditional Brand

Traditional Brand Mechanics

Traditionally, each of those three are created, groomed, and maintained by the vendor. A vendor being someone to get money from a buyer, usually in exchange for something “real,” but not necessarily.

A brand rolls up:

  • The trust a buyer has to give over money to the vendor. This includes trusting that whatever the buyer is getting from the vendor will work or otherwise satisfy the buyer.
  • The identity the vendor and the good or service has to the buyer. Also, though this is slightly more “modern” thinking (see below), a brand can be part of the buyer’s identity.
  • The proxy for the relationship between the vendor and the buyer.

While a brand can be something as simple as a logo and name, it’s definitely eternal things as well, if only an folder to stash all things like identity and relationship. The broader point is: the above three are typically the core things linked together in a brand and “managed” by vendors.

The Collaborative Brand

Collaborative Brand Mechanics

More recently, in response to buyers getting burned out on the traditional ideas of brand (read: it’s harder for more vendors to make money), people have been trying to transform brand into something new. Most of this transformation involved pulling the consumer into the experience (“letting go”) and brands acting as a cure for existential angst.

To my naive mind, the general structure is essentially the same, but what changes is the respect (real or affected) that vendors give to buyers. That respect leads to:

  • Vendors opening up and being more “human” with buyers. Conversations over broadcasts.
  • Vendors asking for and using buyer feedback, including outsourcing brand management to buyers. Collaboration over force-feeding.
  • Vendors taking a “controlled chaos” tact to brands.
  • Buyers using brands for meaning and purpose in their lives.

The Cure for Existential Angst

It’s really this last point of brand as meaning, drilled home by Brand Hijack, that fascinates me so much, e.g.:

Our whole social fabric has endured a radical change in the past few decades. Trust in mass media and religious and political institutions has broken down. As a result, previously rigid institutions have lost their authority.

The French (!) marketing professor Bernard Cova sees the formation of tribes [around, or at least involving brands] as a sign of individuals attempting to assert a sense of local identity over the facelessness of globalization, spirituality over cold reality, and synchronicity over disunity. In his words, “People who have finally managed to liberate themselves from social constraints are embarking on a reverse movement to recompose their social universe.”

Putting on my P.T. Barnum hat: as any business person knows, change and rebuilding means a chance to sell.

Less cynically, people like using the act and results of being a buyer to help shape their identity and make them feel good. As Brand Hijack‘s author Alex Wipperfürth points out several times: you can either take that as a dark, depressing note on contemporary culture, or just accept it as what’s real.

More importantly, if both vendors and buyers can step back from all of the culturally-loaded thinking around this and at brands as another feature — albeit a very ephemeral one — I imagine both groups can have a better experience in the marketplace.

Technorati Tags: , ,

Categories: Enterprise Software, Marketing, Open Source.

Comment Feed

6 Responses

  1. Recognizing that the old brand models don't work any more (as you've done) is a first step in reinventing brands that do. I say "first step" because a new framework for brands really entails tossing out huge amounts of the traditional top-down brand apparatus, its assumptions and modalities. It requires new concepts of brand, new brand models, and new product models, too.

    The key (as I see it) is to define the business mission as "creating customers," and to use brands as a customer creation engine.

    "Creating customers" means much more than simply making a sale. It includes designing the customer that will make your business succeed, plus many levels of customer collaboration (in meaning and in value). As a company, you want to create the customers that your competitors can't reach. (Your customers are your greatest competitive weapon.)

    Ergo, "If you want to make your products fly off the shelf, give wings to your customers." This "giving wings to your customers" is the stuff of brand platforms and programs.

    Personally, I would downplay the "angst" angle. Brands are concrete. Examples: A good user's manual is part of the brand program. It shows respect for the user, and makes the product easier to use. An effective help desk is another brand component. So are user communities and blogs. One could actually spec out all the brand deliverables as part of a brand strategy.

    Hmmm . . . forgive me for commenting on the subsequent post before this one. Didn't see this one until later. Too much fast-twitch brand muscle . . . or Peet's coffee . . . or whatever . .

  2. I like your angle on creating the customer and/or (to be less "controlling" in stating it) making part of your strategy a sort of "training" cultural change item. That is, instead of just providing a product or service for people to come and get, creating the reasons and even culture for that item to exist in.

    That all sounds like some voodoo and at the same time obvious. Perhaps it's too close to the existential angst thing.

    That said, I do think brands — more broadly, the culture of consumers — is core to (at least) American thinking. I think that's what disgusts a lot of people: they don't want to be just a consumer, helping "increase shareholder value," no matter how warm and fuzzy the marketing/brand is.

    Closer to the software world, it raised the question: what is "valid" to charge money for? Why not "life"?

    I stopped reading No Logo awhile ago because it was getting too polemic rather than pragmatic. That said, I think it's worth finishing off the second half.

  3. Agreed, tho I would like to think of us as a "culture of producers" rather than a "culture of consumers." A good brand should help us produce more, rather than just consume more.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. […] In Brand Hijack, there’s much talk of co-creation of your brand, product, and/or service. Again, that kind of thinking makes perfect sense to people who’ve been on the web for several years: Cluetrain is in the water supply now. In the case of Spiceworks and other sites, we have not only co-creation (there’s quite a lot of product management done by user voting, last I checked), but co-marketing and, perhaps, even selling. […]

  2. […] Most importantly, encourage those 3rd parties to “hijack” the platform […]

  3. […] What this amounts to is straight from Cluetrain, Gonzo Marketing (which never got enough attention), and, more recently, Brand Hijack: open up your fire-walls and let your people marketing and influence. Otherwise, you’re wasting a valuable resource. Counter-intutivly, companies love to hire smart people and then treat them like they’re dumb. For companies, part of the recovery is telling the world how happy they are to have a new person working for them, rather than relying on LinkedIn and IM. […]