We need a new word for “brand.” That would help clear up the confusion so many people have about the process of branding. It’s really not the customers’ fault; it’s the fault of marketing professionals who use the term so loosely. And the error is rooted deep in our culture.
Mark Ritson of Marketing Magazine tells us the word “brand” comes from the Norse word for fire. No surprise to American baby boomers, who would remember the opening sequence from Bonanza, in which a red-hot branding iron burned away the map of the Ponderosa ranch in Nevada to reveal Ben Cartwright and his three sons (Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe) riding on horseback.
Of course, cattle have been branded for centuries. The practice was so common in America that, by the Civil War (1861-65), it seemed all cattle bore the mark of their owners. This led Samuel Maverick to decide that he didn’t need to brand his cattle – they would simply be the ones that didn’t have a brand. The concept so captured the American imagination that the word “maverick” came to mean “not associated with a specific group.”
By the turn of the 20th century, advertising pioneer James Walter Thompson had adopted the word “brand” to refer to the connection between manufacturer and consumer. In the 111 years since Thompson’s pioneering work on trademark advertising, the term “brand” has evolved well beyond its original association with marks, to encompass every touch-point between providers and consumers, indeed the very soul of the provider-consumer relationship. And this is what “brand” means, today.
Or at least, that’s what it should mean. Some marketers continue to use the word “brand” to mean “logo” or “mark.” And that leads to brand confusion. Because by leading clients to think in terms of their logo, rather than their brand, we encourage them to develop logos (and taglines, and ad campaigns, and employee incentive programs…) that are not in sync with their culture. And when customers peel back the ads and the slogans, and the visual façade that designers call “image”, they encounter a different experience than what the organization promised – and disappointing the market can be fatal.
The moral of the story is this: Brand may be evidenced in the messages we broadcast, in the colors and styles we wear, and in the photos and marks we use, but if those images are not genuine manifestations of the organization, then any success we may encounter will be short-lived. Worse yet, it may backfire. Before addressing our outward brand, we need to address the fundamental choices that make us who we are. We need to address the needs of our market and the promise our brands offer. And by focusing on the strategy that defines our true value as organizations, we can remain authentic.