Unbranding the Word Brand

“In a world where the words new and fresh are relentlessly repeated on every product label, the name of the sales technique is getting old and stale. Where is the ad-Übermensch, the creative Ogilivy, who will put forward a new moniker for the name of the atmospheric marketing game? The time has come… to unbrand the word brand.”

These excerpted words came from a New York Times column by William Safire, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist, titled On Language published 10 April 2005.

I found this excerpt on an old yellowed piece of ripped-out newsprint that has been sitting under a pile of papers on my desk since the day I removed it from that Sunday New York Times. Bill Safire’s column was the first piece I read in every Sunday New York Times. His wit and wisdom on the language that defined our culture were consistently insightful and compelling. When a cultural observer, a marketing layman, points out over seven years ago that the word brand has become a cliché, it is long past the time for marketers to take note.

It might be a cheap shot to point to the apparent irony that marketing professionals whose expertise it is to differentiate products have commoditized the word brand in both meaning and use. As a profession we have overused the word brand and too often over-promised the virtues of building a strong one. Brand has become the “new marketing.” Brand is the “new black” in the marketing profession. In marketing it is fashionable to have “brand” as a part of one’s title. The title, brand manager, is the “little black dress” of marketing.

I believe the commoditization of brand does not come from its overuse, but because we focus too much on its form and not enough on its function. It’s not about what it is; it’s about why it matters. It’s not about branding; it’s about the advantages of being the brand of choice. Being the brand of choice is the purpose and destination for the business as a whole, not just the marketing department. Becoming the brand of choice is the result of a culture that is impassioned about how its authentic strengths make a difference that matters to its customers.

Being the brand of choice is the position that enables a business to compete and win in ways competitors can’t match. Businesses who have become the brand of choice in their target markets have access to opportunities competitors never see. The position of brand of choice is reserved for the product or service that consistently delivers the highest value to its customers. Being the brand of choice is a business performance standard that is relevant and desirable for every business. The path to becoming the brand of choice is not the same for every business. This is where the concept of brand begins to run amok. I am not talking about different marketing-mix strategies that vary by company. I am referring to whether one views brand as the final veneer or the whole cabinet.

The genesis of modern brand management was rooted in using sophisticated communication techniques, e.g., advertising, to differentiate consumer-packaged products by creating the so-called “emotional connection” with consumers. As long as the underlying products delivered similar features and benefits, creating an emotional connection was the differentiating edge and the path to becoming brand of choice. An emotional connection was the intangible element that added the extra “value” to the product justifying consumers’ willingness to pay a higher price or maintaining loyalty to the product. This intangible quality was the way manufacturers could develop a relationship with consumers ensuring their product was the one pulled from retailers’ shelves and not their competitors.

In this context “branding” became synonymous with marketing communications activities, e.g., logo design, packaging, promotional materials, public relations and digital marketing. (In deference to many consumer-packaged goods companies, brand management has a much broader context encompassing the entire “4-P’s” of marketing.) Committing to a big branding budget was the key to differentiating a product and a reliable path to becoming brand of choice.

For many companies where the underlying product is more complex and less commoditized (like many B-to-B categories) becoming brand of choice dictates a different perspective of brand. Creating the kind of value to earn the position of the brand of choice requires a much broader viewpoint. For complex products creating differentiating value comes from the tangible elements of the product and the company that produces it. In this case the “brand” is associated with all of the tangible qualities of the business that designs, produces and delivers the product. The ethos and values of the organization are the true differentiating factors. Managing a brand is the responsibility of the enterprise as a whole and in the best case marketing provides leadership by advocating and nourishing a strong connection between the brand inside and the brand outside.

Unless brand is defined in the larger enterprise context, the promise of “branding” generally falls short for many organizations. Recasting the notion of brand in the context for aligning and energizing the entire organization to consistently deliver what is necessary to become brand of choice will make it relevant to virtually every organization. Make brand work on the inside and the outside. In this way brand has appeal and value to a broad spectrum of organizations.

I don’t believe that we need a different word for brand; we need a broader, more relevant definition that demonstrates its pertinent value to more organizations. We should stop trying to position a limited concept of brand, i.e., branding, as a universal tool to help companies become brand of choice. In its best form brand management is a broader organization-wide framework that keeps all employees focused on creating the extra value that’s necessary to become the brand of choice.

We all look good in black, but wearing a little black dress isn’t the best way for some of us to show it off!

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