Jay-Z and Beyonce’s baby girl Blue Ivy is proof that even the best can name things incorrectly. Fortunately for Blue Ivy, with parents such as hers, it’s unlikely she’ll ever be subjected to too much bullying. However, for those of us who attended public school, we know how costly wrong names can be. Unfortunately in marketing, we’re continually naming things incorrectly, and while heads aren’t being flushed down toilets as a result, money certainly is.
I am of course referring to the proliferation of the word brand. Naomi Klein argues that brands are swallowing up an ever-increasing share of public space, and I argue the word itself has cannibalistic tendencies. Somehow it’s consumed more accurate words such as style, personality and reputation (as an aside, unless your name is Russell, don’t refer to yourself as a brand, you just sound like a dick).
A brand, in its purest form, fulfils one of our great human desires: it enables us to simultaneously be both an individual and belong to a group. A brand facilitates social expression. Through association to a brand, we’re able to say we are this type of person, and not that type of person. A brand therefore, acts as a symbol of who we are. Incidentally, people living in rural towns don’t really care about brands the same way city folk do, because they already know who the people they see on a daily basis are. In Auckland, not so much.
For a brand to function as described above, two criteria must be met. First, the association must be, in some way, publicly visible. Nobody knows my insurance provider, therefore it’s not a brand, because it’s not an act of self-expression. Second, and most importantly, if it’s mass marketed, it cannot be a brand. There's a phrase: 'if everyone was good looking, no one would be good looking'. So if everyone’s wearing Nike shoes, then they no longer serve to indentify me as an athlete. Since supermarkets, banks, insurance providers, and petrol stations take all sorts, being associated with them doesn’t demonstrate any unique aspects about one's self.
A reputation, on the other hand, is what all companies who don’t fit the criteria above have. On a personal level, I think we intuitively get that reputations are outside our own control, they exist in the minds of people who know us, and are by-products of who we are, what we do, and how we do it. This is why calling things correctly is more than mere semantics. Unlike a brand, the only way to change a reputation is to make fundamental changes to the company. This cannot be done through advertising alone, because reputations are the products of actions, not words. For example, does an advertising campaign telling you how great a supermarket is change your shopping habits? How about more self-service kiosks reducing queuing time at 6pm?
In essence, unless you make clothes or cars, worry less about your brand, and more about your organisation. Or as a former boss of mine use to say, less talky talky, more worky worky.