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.   To get the full context of these words http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/10/magazine/10ONLANGUAGE.html?ref=williamsafire.

(I was once told by a writer friend of mine that if you didn’t read Bill Safire’s column every Sunday you were not dedicated to being a serious writer.)

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 every time I sat down to read the Sunday edition of The New York Times. His wit and wisdom on the language that defined our culture were consistently insightful and compelling.

When a cultural observer and political pundit points out almost 12 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 overpromised the virtues of building a strong one.

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 financial 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.  Branding focuses on executing a strong promotional mix. Becoming the brand of choice is a holistic process engaging an organization’s culture that is impassioned about how its authentic strengths make a distinctive difference that matters to its customers.

Being the brand of choice is the hard earned position that elevates an organization above all of its competitors.  Businesses who are the brand of choice in their target markets have access to opportunities competitors never see.  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.

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. The ethos and values of an organization are the true sustainable differentiating factors for a brand. 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 and brand has appeal and value to a broad spectrum of organizations.  In this context brand will get much closer to delivering on its potential as a business tool that creates extra value for 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 kind of value for customers that earns the organization the honor of brand of choice.

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