A brand isn’t what a brand says. A brand is what a brand does.

Doc Searles, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, and I have been exchanging thoughts about brands, branding and reputation over on his blog Doc Searls Weblog. (Gotta love the fact that he calls his site a weblog, testament to how long he’s been around.)

If you don’t know who Doc Searles is, take a quick peek at his list of “projects.” There’s not much he hasn’t done, and if anyone’s entitled to talk about this stuff, he is.

Anyway, Doc had a pretty opinionated post about how “branding has jumped the shark,” declaring that….

“saying stuff may get more attention than doing stuff, at least in the short run. But doing stuff is what makes the world work.”

No arguments there. But I sort of disagreed with Doc when he insisted…

“brands are nothing but statements. At best they are a well-known and trusted badge, name or both.”

I believe that a brand is the essence of what of what it promises and delivers. It’s not a logo, or a trademark — and definitely not its advertising — despite the claims of brand identity companies and even some ad agencies. Your perception of a brand may be informed by ads, along with recommendations from friends, or interactions with a company’s employees, but the only thing that truly matters is the real-life experience you actually have with the company or its products.

Think of how many brands you know that hardly do any advertising.  Starbucks, and Wholefoods, for example, or until recently, Zappos. In every case, what you think about those companies has less to do with their “branding” and more to do with the personal involvement you’ve had with them.

I suppose in some ways, Doc and I are in agreement:  messages don’t matter; actions do.

So if you’re in the business of “branding,” it’s more important that you work to influence, or at least accurately reflect, a brand’s behavior.  And just hope you’re not on the BP account.

Here’s the back and forth Doc and I shared.

My initial response to Reputation vs Branding

WTF is branding? That’s a dumb word that simply means taking a brand, its beliefs, what it stands for and its consistent behavior (all adding up to the promise of a brand) and giving it a “message.” It’s messages that have jumped the shark and branding = creating messages.

What you really mean to argue is that false messages or contrived messages — think BP’s Beyond Petroleum — have jumped the shark. That is what you call branding. And in an age when the manufacturer, publisher, broadcaster and programmer have lost power to the consumer, reader, viewer and user, it’s obvious that the power of controlled messages (what you call branding) has lost its impact. That’s nothing new.

Brands, on the other hand, are alive and well. A “brand” has always been its ultimate promise; and what you, a consumer, believe that promise to be. In many ways, that’s the exact same thing as reputation, as a reputation is earned through behavior.

Doc Searles’s Reply

Edward,

I did not mean to argue that false or contrived messages have jumped the shark. They have not, and probably never will. I did mean to argue that “branding” as a marketing buzzword has jumped the shark, in the sense that it has been carried by its buzzers far from both its original meaning and the one to which its defenders hope to restore it (by calling it, for example, a “promise”).

Differences matter. Distinctions matter. A brand may be a “promise,” but a reputation is not.

My second comment

We may be saying the same thing and using different semantics. I am arguing that there is a difference between “branding,” the act of trying to define a brand, and “brand,” which is essentially what the brand *is* and *does* and delivers as an actual promise, not a stated one. Nike’s reputation is for good athletic shoes. Nike’s brand is about encouraging individual performance. That is its promise, delivered through its product, consistent behavior, etc.

Coke’s product is a sugary softdrink. Its brand is happiness, delivered through the way in which its product is used and the occasions associated with it.

BP’s product was oil exploration and oil. Right now its brand is environmental destruction. Recently its branding has been Beyond Petroleum. If we follow your argument, it suggests that such “branding” efforts are futile. But brand, not always the same as product, will always exist. Brand is reputation. Branding is an attempt to change that reputaiton through words or messages rather than behavior.

Doc’s Response

Thanks, Edward. That’s the best summary I’ve read so far on the topic(s).

I figured I should quit while I was ahead. But you must admit, the opportunity to connect, debate, disagree and clarify our thinking is what’s cool about all of this. What about you? Care to weigh in? Message versus behavior? Reputation vs Branding? Branding vs Brand?

photo by:  jddefillippo 138

22 comments
Gretchen Ramsey
Gretchen Ramsey

Edward, I always find it intriguing to hear how former PR folk turned creatives define branding -- we think reputation, always.

Jeff Shattuck's comment about branding cows is so right on in its simplicity and slightly frightening to me professionally, as I've recently entered an active skinvertising program with one of my clients, where we are physically "branding" customers at point of sale with promotional messaging for new products by stamping their hands. People are the medium. The reputation is not wholly controlled by us creative-types, but shaped by the reputation of the flock we align with and allow to brand for us. So the cow branding, Jeff, is not necessarily communicating just ownership, but parading the health and virility of the brand. Beautiful branded cows = good product. So, the presence of the people who own the brand and their individual reputations shape the brand. This is branding. Now.

BP could save itself by tapping the reputations of respected individuals with sound reputations. People are the medium and carry the brand. In crisis, we always talk about being human. This means so much more today then it did several years ago.

Another thought provoking post, Sir Edward.
.-= Gretchen Ramsey´s last blog ..An Apple a Day, Keeps the Recession Away =-.

Lisa Hickey
Lisa Hickey

When clients come to me for branding advice these days I say "great, let's take a look at your company to-do list for the next year".

In the not so distant past, you were able to "control" what people thought of your brand through messaging. It's simply getting harder and harder to do that. If I were a company thinking about marketing these days, I'd put more of my money figuring out what actions I should take going forward than spending months figuring out what the right message should be.
.-= Lisa Hickey´s last blog ..lisahickey: Note to self: Liked this structure for a "modern business plan" from seth godin ~ http://bit.ly/bUky4L =-.

Matt Gentile
Matt Gentile

In my humble opinion, the brand is its people and the messages represent its marketing. A company's reputation is earned through the actions of its people and how closely aligned those actions match its messages in the perception of the consumer.

PS. I am deeply envious that everyone here has so much time to think and write.

Sender Message Channel Receiver
Same As It Ever Was

Have a great Memorial Day Weekend everyone.

PEACE,

MG

Jeff Shattuck
Jeff Shattuck

Edward,

I confess, I’m staggered by the fact that people – smart people! – are still debating the meaning of the words brand and branding. Aren’t you? Heck, sometimes I think all the confusion is intentional, a semi-coordinated effort to make marketing sound harder than it is! Argh…

Anyway, I can’t resist, here’s what I think a brand is:

The perception a consumer has of a business. (In other words, I agree with your notion that a brand is like a reputation.)

As for branding, I define it as:

The process of trying to create/change how your business is perceived. You can run ads, do stuff, lobby, etc., but all of these efforts are attempts to influence something you do not and can not completely control.

Two last thoughts!

Let’s remember where the word branding came from. It was a way to let others know who a cow belonged to and how scared a thief should be if he stole it. That’s it!
In other words, then as now, it was a perception created through symbols and actions and, most important, the reactions of others to those symbols and actions.

As for BP, they didn’t walk the talk. Given a chance to use a cheaper seal with greater environmental risk, they took it. Beyond idiocy.

Jeff
.-= Jeff Shattuck´s last blog ..Of wine, song and the unpredictability of life. =-.

Bruce DeBoer
Bruce DeBoer

How do you get honest accurate information? If you're like me you go to multiple sources and collect the data to get a vague idea of what's really going on.

So what is your vague feeling about Coke, BP, Arizona, whatever right now? Your answer = your piece of the brand's essence. The internet years have simply allowed us to get a more accurate feel for the essence of a brand. Saying "brand" has jumped the shark is like saying any word in the dictionary is no longer useful. I understand the idea being presented and I think there is something there but nothing has jumped anything IMHO.

Our messaging is an influencer - period; so is propaganda an influencer. It's clearly best for companies to stay clear of propaganda regarding their products.

Excellent brand summary - as always, very intelligent stuff here.

btw - I think Arizona had a worse brand shift than BP has in recent months.

Jeremy Morris
Jeremy Morris

Edward I think your point is well argued, but I still think Doc's on to something. I don't think a brand is a 'promise' - or at least if it is you really can't define it in a way that makes sense for millions of people with different contexts and different expectations.

When I buy a can of Coke I don't think 'happiness'. I don't hold it to that absurd standard. Drinking a Coke will make me happy? Really? How? I'm just as likely to drink Coke hunched over a soggy burrito in a NY deli as I am at a picnic table on a hot summer's day. I buy it because it tastes nice, and I trust it not to poison me. If Coke's brand is 'happiness', then so is Pepsi, Sierra Nevada, Nike, Apple, Cambridge Audio, the Fountainbleu in Miami, etc, etc because I buy them all too. Coke's marketing is certainly about happiness. That's different. That's branding.

Yes Nike does a great job of encouraging individual performance. So does Adidas, Asics, Under Armour...because they make stuff you wear when you work out. Sure Nike's marketing is about performance.

I'm not trying to be difficult. If I need gym shoes I go to a store that sells them and talk to someone knowledgeable about the best shoes to buy for my banana shaped feet. Nike Pegasus as it happens. Sadly running 6 miles takes just as long in these as it does in my old Asics :(
.-= Jeremy Morris´s last blog ..The Razorfish 2010 Outlook Report: 5 Reasons To Expect More =-.

Howie G
Howie G

I think the whole gist of everything written here sums up my own views and the Ad Contrarian - Bob Hoffman. I come from Finance/Sales. I want ads and campaigns that sell. I also want products/service/brands (ie clients) to hold up their end of the bargain.

I have noticed since coming into advertising that some agencies tell a client its all about Branding. Thus overusing the term. This argument here revolves around expanding the use of the word and our view of it. Where the image becomes more important than the product or selling the product.

Using Mullen as a case study are you honest with clients when it comes to discussing what they sell or do. Many businesses are delusional to a degree about what they are providing and want the Agency to reinforce this. Its ok to be good and not great as a product/service. But if you are only good....don't think your great. Branding won't make you great. Improving what you offer and how you offer will make you great.

I mean McDonald's can think their competition is Morton's Steak House. And for $50mil I bet there is an Agency that will craft a campaign for that positioning right? Because it is all about Branding?

Fred Roed
Fred Roed

I believe we marketers make the concept of 'brand' difficult not only for clients but for ourselves. My agency (World Wide Creative) believes that a brand is merely the message that you choose to convey.

Contained within this message is a promise. Whether you keep your promise will result in either a strong brand perception or a weak brand perception.

This definition aligns your strategic thinking and provides a simple, yet useful stake in the ground for clients to work with throughout their marketing efforts.

Paul zink
Paul zink

If the more things change, the more they stay the same, then the old adage still holds true: "Actions speak louder than words."

Mark Harmel
Mark Harmel

I'll leave the branding question to experts.

I will weigh in on BP though. I always wondered if some-what greenwashing campaigns like the BP's would actually help to push the company to live up to their campaign even if they weren't quite there yet.

I had good feeling about BP before the spill and learning that there have been other environmental problems in the past.

On the other hand Walmat has been cleaning up their image by actually do more environmentally good activities that they promote.

What do others think, or is this a new post for tomorrow?

Matt Gentile
Matt Gentile

Don't kid yourself Edward, you have transformed into Gandalf the White, you no longer need to battle in the depths of Mordor. You my friend get paid to think and write and from what I've seen you are definitely doing it in the right order...thinking, then writing. Always a pleasure.

MG

edward boches
edward boches

Matt:
Well put. Two things. None of us have any time. And just because we're writing doesn't mean we're actually thinking. ;-) Maybe we're just all tired of watching television. Or we took typing in high school so we can comment quickly. Or perhaps sleep is overrated. Either way, we're often out here. Join us. Thanks for stopping by.

edward boches
edward boches

Well, your opinion is based on experience. I only know what I read in the papers ;-)

Mark Harmel
Mark Harmel

As a Westerner that loves the desert I see Arizona and having the last stand of Route 66, the Grand Canyon, and parts of Monument Valley.

Wide open spaces, towering cactus and the Center for Creative Photography http://bit.ly/3R365 come to mind for me. I rarely think about the politics there (even though I think they're bad).
.-= Mark Harmel´s last blog ..Why I dumped my iPad and bought a new MacBook Pro instead =-.

edward boches
edward boches

Arizona never had a great rep as far as I was concerned. If you mean the state, that is. Dry, golf, excessive irrigation, Republican, anti-immigrant.

Jeremy Morris
Jeremy Morris

Absolutely! It's the sum total of the things that form my perception. Made up of my experience with the product, my life context, the opinions of trusted others...and in many cases the influence of the company's marketing initiatives - when they support my overall perception rather than fight with it. I'm not suggesting for a minute that a company should abdicate the opportunity to influence consumers just that the concept of brand as a specific promise is a stretch. It's a great debate :)
.-= Jeremy Morris´s last blog ..The Razorfish 2010 Outlook Report: 5 Reasons To Expect More =-.

Jeremy Morris
Jeremy Morris

Absolutely! It's the sum of my perception. Made up of my experience with the product, my life context, the opinions of trusted others...and in many cases the influence of the company's marketing initiatives - when they support my overall perception rather than fight with it. I'm not suggesting for a minute that a company should abdicate the opportunity to influence consumers just that the concept of brand as a specific 'promise' is a stretch. It's a great debate :)

edward boches
edward boches

Jeremy:
I buy that. But if what you say is really true, then "brand" doesn't matter at all. Just the quality of the product. Chances are there is something about the "brand" beyond the product that you associate with the ones you use, and that helps you classify them and decide whether to stay with them. No?

edward boches
edward boches

We are lucky in that we have many clients who are and say the same thing. Zappos, Jet Blue, Panera, Four Seasons, Olympus. Even the DoD. A good agency will make sure the two align, even influencing the products and behavior that define a brand more than its ads.

Fred Roed
Fred Roed

I know more than a few marketers who agree with you Edward, but I think your definition is somewhat wishy-washy and confusing.

What you term 'experience' is actually the consequence of the brand process. A customer has a negative or positive experience depending on whether you're keeping the promise contained in your brand message.

To clarify: I'm NOT saying 'all messages are brands' as you allude to in your comment. I'm saying: your brand is 'the message you CHOOSE to convey'. For example, my company's brand is defined by this message, 'we create profitable websites for our clients'.

The strength of our brand is then built by consistently conveying that message.
.-= Fred Roed´s last blog ..Online Reputation Management Tools: The good, the bad and the ugly =-.

edward boches
edward boches

Sort of disagree, Fred. Messages are definitely not brands. Your experience is what determines brand, and that comes from how a brand treats you, what it actually does and how reliable you find it. My two cents.

edward boches
edward boches

Mark:
A little too easy for any of us to bash BP. Must say, however, their beyond campaign always smelled bad to me. Like a tobacco company doing ads to prevent smoking in teens. Pahleeze. And yes, Walmart has been doing some good things re environment and energy. A tough one again, as they put little guys out of business, but satisfy customers in a big way.

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