“Daddy, What’s a Brand?” and 9 More Awkward Questions for Uncertain Times

May 10 2010

1. “Daddy, what’s a brand?” Chiquita, Victoria’s Secret, The GOP, Amnesty International. They all use marketing and invite trust in a distinct belief system. They’re all, to one degree or another, brands. For a brand, nirvana is when your good name is so widely endorsed that it enters the language. “Pass the Kleenex.” “Google it.” But that’s the top of a long and slippery slope—look at Toyota and Tiger Woods. A healthy brand drives up your stock, and vice versa. These are the things we thought we knew. It’s 2010—are they still true?

2. My brand isn’t working. Better send out an RFP, right? There’s this idea that advertising or design firms create brands. This is silly. “Just do it” was there in the Nike culture—Wieden + Kennedy was just the reporter that dug it up. Brands tell the truth and when they don’t they fail. Look at New Coke or Cool Britannia—people like you and me decide what Coca-Cola is or isn’t, and in the end it was Britain which re-branded Tony Blair. Recently in Colorado, people took to the streets to protest the possible end of the Frontier Airlines “tail animals”—the core of a brand our company Genesis helped to launch. It wasn’t the graphics they were defending, it was the culture they express. If your brand is under-performing, the first place to look is the mirror.

3. Brands are high maintenance. Do we even need them any more? If you need a couple of pills to soothe a headache, shopping for them can just make it worse. It takes acres of supermarket shelf space to house the whole Wikipedia of branded line-extensions. Every conceivable shade of Excedrin, Tylenol, Advil, the generics. Will I ever get back the 10 minutes I waste stumbling round this chemical suburb? That’s not branding, it’s over-branding. At a recent conference on innovation I heard a very smart man called Larry Brilliant say this: “What we’re trying to avoid is 9.5 billion people consuming like Americans.” Do we still need brands? Sure we do, but only ones that give more than they take, ones that add to the quality of life. We’ll need that kind as long as we need companies.

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