Fwd: A New Brand World

From: Wade T.Smith (wade_smith@harvard.edu)
Date: Sun 01 Dec 2002 - 17:09:59 GMT

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    A New Brand World

    Don Aucoin


    Lately, I've been fretting about my brand. It's been tanking with the all-important 18-to-34 demographic. Clearly, I need to be more cutting edge, more with it, more now. I'm working on it. The goatee is coming in nicely, the tattoo has nearly healed, and I find that the tongue-piercing has actually improved my diction.

    Still, I pine for the old days, when it was enough to have an identity, or an image, or even just a plain old personality. Not anymore. Now, whether you're a person or a product, it's all about the brand. Every talk-show host wants to be the next Oprah (Hello there, Dr. Phil); every manufacturer of soft drinks or flavored juices wants to be the next Coke; every network envisions its prime-time lineup as the next
    "must-see TV." And even ordinary Joes and Josephines crave a "personal brand" that will earn them riches beyond the dreams of Croesus, or at least an office with a window.

    They all want what they think a brand represents: instant, universal recognition that triggers a Pavlovian impulse among consumers to watch or buy whatever they're showing or selling - including themselves. So they adopt a "branding strategy" in an attempt to "build brand equity." And when they are unable to "leverage the brand"? Why, then, it's time to launch a "rebranding campaign."

    Seldom has so vague a concept been bandied about by so many. It comes to us, as do most dubious things, courtesy of the advertising industry, which has long promoted the idea of brand names.

    Like "spin," born of the political term "spin control," "brand" shed its companion word en route to a place in the vernacular as a noun, adjective, and verb. As cable-news outlets frenetically promoted their coverage of the Washington-area sniper shootings in October, one journalism professor remarked to The Washington Post: "Each one is trying to brand its news to keep its viewers loyal." But the ad industry retains pride of authorship. In an invitation to its November workshops in New York on "developing and implementing successful brand strategies," the Association of National Advertisers proclaimed that
    "your brand is your single most valuable asset."

    Certainly a lot of people beyond Madison Avenue have come to think so. In Hollywood, where going to extremes is a way of life, some seem to view the brand as half mystical force, half living thing. When Nickelodeon's Rugrats TV show was turned into a movie, its executive producer said the film "has given everyone here the wonderful feeling that the brand has taken a deep breath and expanded."

    Equally wonderful feelings abound at Dennis Publishing, which recently launched a hair-color product linked to its magazine Maxim. "This gives them a tangible interface with our brand that they can touch or feel," says the company's manager for (what else?) brand development. Even David Brooks, one of the savviest writers around, wrote in a summer issue of The Atlantic Monthly that Yasser Arafat's "primary goals have always been to create and nurture what might be called the Palestinian brand."

    There seems to be no stopping brand-mania, what with recent books exalting the brand as a means of propelling oneself up the corporate ladder. In his book The Personal Branding Phenomenon, Peter Montoya argues that power and influence in the workplace and marketplace can be acquired by the development of a personal brand, which he defines as "a personal identity that stimulates precise, meaningful perceptions in its audience about the values and qualities that person stands for." As examples of effective personal brands, he cites "Tom Hanks, the Everyman," "Jack Welch, the Greatest CEO Ever," and - I kid you not -
    "Jesus Christ, Savior."

    You don't have to follow the branding fad to the outer limits of absurdity to spot holes in its premise. The truth is that a brand is far more often an effect than a cause; the brand usually follows the achievement, not vice versa. Oprah Winfrey became Oprah because of her singular ability to connect with people, not because of any self-conscious branding strategy. Even Coca-Cola can't manufacture popular appeal with a brand alone, as the company learned when it rolled out New Coke, and customers rolled it right back.

    Besides, when everybody has a brand, it will be hard to stand out from the herd.

    This story ran in the Boston Globe Magazine on 12/1/2002.
    Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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