This new article by Toby Donaldson in Adpulp’s Emerging Voices series is made possible by the generous support of Looney Advertising in Montclair, NJ.
Brand is coming back into vogue. Skepticism of Martech-led short-termism is reaching CMOs and CEOs, so much so that the Gartner CMO survey ranks brand strategy as the most vital marketing capability in 2020, overtaking analytics.
Marketing leaders appear to be waking up to the fact that selling to people isn’t just about the desperate race to the bottom of optimization, clicks, funnels, and targeting – it’s about something more… human?
I think dropping analytics-based determinism is broadly a good thing but adopting the ambiguity of brand comes with problems of its own. Maybe it’s time to close down that Excel spreadsheet and open up a real conversation.
Ask a hundred “brand people” what a brand is, you’ll get a hundred different answers.
Ancient Egyptians were the original brand strategists. Back in 2700 BCE branding livestock with hot irons was used to differentiate one person’s cattle from another’s. With the passage of time, brand naturally became a heuristic for the associations that ran with that particular breeder or farmer.
5,720 years on, and the brand is a metaphor for the collection of impressions around a commercial enterprise or product that formed its reputation. Then in the 20th century, branding became an industry of its own.
Today, most of us know a brand is not a logo or a set of guidelines, and it certainly isn’t a 50-page toolkit. As much as we try to shoehorn brands into models and frameworks, what a ‘brand’ is (and always has been), is really just how we feel about a particular product, service or thing. Cultivating that ‘feeling’ is the real skill of branding.
A feeling about something is a mixture of inputs and biases. You combine a collection of impressions and associations over time with your own biases and preferences – and that mixture is the feeling.
Brand Identity Is the Part of the Brand You Identify With
Real human people can’t differentiate between feelings about commercial enterprises and anything else – it’s all the same system. Because of this, anything with a consistent thread in your consciousness could be considered to have a ‘brand’.
Your mother has a brand. An oak tree has one. The calm, blue, clear waters of the Aegean Sea have one. These ‘brands’ are formed in our minds in the same way as our feelings about cars, phones, or orange juice.
- My mother is endlessly patient and kind with a distinctly Northern lack of tolerance for spinelessness.
- Think of an oak tree, and we think of steadfastness, regality, and resilience – the tree has been a symbol of such for millennia.
- The Aegean Sea is calm, cooling on a hot summer day – as well as the cradle of Western civilization.
- An Audi, I’d tell you it’s a BMW for nice people.
- An iPhone is a piece of technology specifically designed with human beings in mind
- Tropicana is the cold, life-giving nectar I swig straight from the carton in the fridge door first thing in the morning.
Intentional or not, those are those brands to me.
New Metaphor Needed
The problem brand strategy has, is it continually bumps up against the problem of trying to formalise these feelings using synthetic models, processes, and frameworks. It needs an organic metaphor of its own. Something that’s a mixture of inputs, combined with biases and preferences.
It’s important that we continually remind ourselves that people in the real world don’t care about archetypes, propositions, or narratives. Why would they? They just feel a certain way.
It’s enough to drive you to drink – but for once that might be the answer.
A cocktail is a set of inputs, mixed accordingly, and combined with your own preferences. The inputs are the ingredients, and the preferences are your tastes. They come long or short, energy givers or moody brooders, shaken up, or slow burners.
Mixing cocktails is a good metaphor for what brand strategy is. You’re mixing a set of ingredients, these ingredients could be advertising, PR, sponsorships, heritage, physical, digital, psychological, or historical. You cultivate all the ingredients you can, combine them with an understanding of your audiences’ preferences – and serve up something that works for them.
Think of a brand you admire or one you don’t. Think of the reasons you admire or hate it. Think of all the impressions of that brand you have, think about the associations you make with it. Think about how your identity affects your views, your convictions, your biases, your worldview. All of that comes together to form the brand in your mind.
The role of brand strategy is to organise, affect, and make consistent the inputs we can control to create a feeling in that person. It’s to mix the right cocktail of ingredients for our drinkers.
Ask for the Brandtender’s Special
In recent years, brand strategy has a bit of a bad rep for being ‘lofty’. Maybe it is lofty – and some people in the field don’t help themselves here. What we know is you can’t shove brand strategy into a perfect model, put it on a production line, or replicate the processes very well, but thankfully we’re not in the business of replication here. We’re in the business of attraction.
And what does it take to attract people to your proposition? Humanity.
One of the most important principles in all communications is you can’t tell people how to feel. They just feel the way they do. Try to work out why. List your ingredients. Create a menu. Shake, pour, and serve. When brand strategists do their job right, yours will be the most popular bar in town.