“If branding is your heritage, there’s a reason you outgrew it.”
She was right, of course. I studied branding and marketing in college… and business school. I’d worked for and with brands for the better part of 20 years. I’d helped create new brands. I’d overseen rebrands. I’d strategized how to message, market, and sell products of those brands.
And now she wanted to know why I left it all behind.
The funny thing: it wasn’t a conscious decision. It’s just that branding didn’t seem to work. Not for the “brands.” Not for the agencies trying to help.
And so she gave me a challenge: explain in 800 words why I think branding is broken.
In fact, I can explain it in 8 words: Branding doesn’t create brands. It creates more branding.
And a big ol’ part of that problem is that we divorce meaning from experience.
So let’s back up.
“Brands” and “branding” started, of course, with some pretty angry cows.
Brands were a symbol burned into hides of cows, horses, and other livestock. They were a recognizable way to mark which belonged to whom in a world where most people couldn’t read.
Others adopted the practice. Potters, vintners, brewers. Those marks told that pre-literate society all sorts of information. What was in those casks, kegs, and pots. Where it came from. Who made it.
Based on people’s experiences with those products over time, that information started to mean something more. Wine from that region or maker was better than this one. That farmer produced higher quality meat than this other.
The mark and what it stood for started to blend.
You can see the throughline to modern-day brand logos. They, too, often carry much more meaning than you see in the logo itself. Volvo = safety, Disney = happiness, United = battered passengers. You get the idea.
But, because we didn’t have another word or concept for that “extra” information carried in a symbol or a name, “brand” came to mean three things at once. The symbol (logo), the company or product it stood for, and the meaning the other two represented.
And worse? The most important part — the meaning — changes. Why? Because what we do with a brand guides how we see it. Experiences produce meaning.
One brand can mean very different things to very different people…. Just ask the million milers on United and the unfortunate schlubs getting beat up in Economy.
And that meaning can change based on context…. Just ask the unfortunate schlub in Economy who gets a surprise upgrade to First. How do they feel about United then?
So how is a company, much less a marketer, supposed to unify that meaning? Well, that’s where branding comes in — and adds yet another layer of confusion.
At its simplest, branding was the process of applying the brand to the aforementioned angry cows.
In the 1950s, companies like Proctor and Gamble realized they could do something similar. They made a bet: that a “brand” (name, logo, and tagline, in this case) added to their products (which they called “brands!”) would… develop a “brand” (a deeper meaning in the minds of consumers).
It worked, so branding as a marketing practice was born. Now, companies all over the world decide to develop “brands” and then “brand” them (logo, name, and tagline) to create brands (deeper meaning).
But notice something here: Branding contorts the “natural” process from which brands arose. Back in the angry cow days, you had the product first. You marked that product with a (literal) brand. That brand came to mean more — through experience — producing a Brand (capital B).
But with branding, the logo, name and slogan often come last. We figure out the meaning we want. Then we figure out what logo, name, and tagline capture that. And too often, we leave the experience completely out of the equation.
But it’s the experiences that produce meaning.
And so what happens? We get branding that is often laughably divorced from people’s actual experiences with the brand. (Yes, United, we’re looking at you… “Fly the friendly skies,” indeed!)
We can solve this, and the answer is surprisingly simple. It comes back to those experiences that create the meaning we’re looking for:
Why are those experiences what they are?
Not because of some logo or tagline, surely. It’s because the company chooses to do what it does in a particular way. It may be conscious or not, but over time, there are predictable patterns to those choices… and predictable experiences as a result.
That’s where the lost promise of branding lies… It doesn’t lie with the meaning we think will create experiences for our customers. It lies with the meaning that already drives the experiences.
Just like all computers have an operating system that drives its behavior, a company has an operating system that drives its behavior, too.
And it’s not what we wish we stood for. It’s what, based on our actions, we clearly and already do.
It’s answers to questions like:
- Why are we doing this?
- What outcome are we looking for?
- Why would customers care? What outcome are they looking for?
- Why are those our customers? What goals and values do we share?
- Why is their path to the goal obstructed? Why can’t others see what we see?
- Why does our approach work better?
It’s not one “why.” It’s a system of “whys” (plural). But the good news: that system is predictable and knowable.
It may not be easy or comfortable to find the answers to those questions, but it is possible. I’ve seen it happen over and over again.
And the companies — even the individuals — who find those answers have found something much deeper and better than any brand. Or Branding.
They’ve found what lies beneath their brand, brand, and Brand.
They’ve found their whys.
They’ve found their Red Thread.