A more useful way to think about brands

May 16, 2012

With all of the time and money spent by brand managers and strategists thinking about brands, I think we’ve actually seen very little new thinking on the topic. It seems to me there have been two basic definitions of a brand. The old old school definition was: brand is a visual symbol (e.g., logo) that tells people the origin of something. For example, the brand on cattle which told people which ranch the cow came from. The old school definition is: brand is an idea, or a set of ideas that reside in the minds of consumers about some offering. Actually, the old old school and the old school definition are basically the same. They differ only in the kinds of actions they encourage managers to pursue. The ancient definition encourages people to focus on execution – primarily visual execution. The less ancient definition encourages people to think more strategically about the role a brand should play in the lives of consumers. Still, they’re both basically the same idea – a brand is about stuff that people outside the company will think.

Even the supposedly revolutionary social media movement is not challenging this paradigm. Social media accepts the premise that a brand is about what outsiders think. It only differs in its point of view about how those thoughts are created. The traditional belief is that those thoughts are created by carefully curated corporate activities. The social media belief is that those thoughts are created by the crowd through interactions not with the company but amongst itself.

I think there is a more productive way to think about brands. One that rejects the premise that brands are about what outsiders think. I’ve written about this before. Read this post. And this one. This idea keeps coming back to me – which tells me that I haven’t yet written it well enough. So I’m trying again.

I think a more productive way to think about brands is with respect to the effect they have on internal audiences – known in English as “employees.” Or, better yet, “people who work for the company.” This is not to say that brands do not create impressions in the minds of consumers. Of course they do. I’m only arguing that there is a more accurate – and more productive – way of thinking about brands.

I made the case for this in my previous posts on this topic. The regnant model of brands is entirely around the notion of a free pass. You work hard to create impressions in the minds of consumers. Then you have a brand which is an “asset.” It has lasting value. It earns you something. But actually, that stale way of thinking about brands is counterproductive.¬†Outsiders now have instant access to an unlimited amount of information. So there is basically no difference between what people on the inside and people on the outside know. And consumers have a wealth of choice. This means that no company can rest on its laurels. A brand does not buy you a free pass. Consumers will choose you based on what you do, not on what you’ve done.

Maybe the best way to think about a brand is this: A brand is nothing more than an employee manual. It tells employees how to behave. It tells them what to focus on. It tells them how to communicate and in what tone. And so on. It provides these valuable lessons based on what has worked in the past. A company puts something out in the world. If it fails abysmally, the company moves on. If it gains traction (even with a tiny niche audience) then the company realizes it’s on to something. It has created value in the world. And yes, it has a brand. But again, that brand is not something of lasting value. It can be killed with a single tweet. Instead, the brand is a recipe, a manual for employees that tells them how to create that value over and over again by acting in ways that are consistent with whatever the company did in the first place that resonated with some audience.

I don’t think the ancient ways of thinking about brands are wrong. But I do think they encourage behaviors that are counterproductive. Brands must be earned every day. Through actions. So brand as employee manual or recipe is, I think, a much better way to conceive of brands.


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