Branding, the Island

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

Billions have been spent on systems intended to strengthen relationships between companies and consumers. Endless books have been written about it. You can’t have a conversation at work, or produce a slide presentation, without talking about how much you worship customers, believe in customer-centricity, or otherwise praise their position as your Guiding Light.

And yet customer satisfaction is at an all time low. So is trust in corporations. 

What’s wrong with this equation?

I explore this disconnect in some detail in my new book, Branding Only Works on Cattle. And my conclusion is that it’s a communications problem: we marketers have created very attractive islands for ourselves, on which we now find ourselves and our practice of branding stranded.

Speaking as a marketer, I’m not sure we appreciate just how profound science and math can be. We think philosophy is our exclusive domain. Our answers come from inspired painters, angry musicians, and befuddled poets, whose personal expression of emotion and feeling are themselves Universal Truths, in need of no substantiation or repeatability by experiment. Such details are, well, meant for the technicians who work those sorts of things out.

As a result of our self-annointed superiority complex, marketing departments — and our definitions and delivery of branding — have stayed independent from the massive waves of transformation that have washed over the corporate world for the last 100 years or so.

Especially in the last decade or so, most all of the non-poets in our organizations have worked together to define the big and small ideas that drive their work. First the manufacturing and finance people, but also operations, IT, business strategy, sourcing, even human resources have participated in deciding not just to measure what’s important, but first identifying what is important to measure.

Each of these departments has then gone on to reinvent itself based on one management trend or another, sometimes more than once. They are all much closer to actual customers than anybody in marketing can even imagine. And central to this reinvention has been a focus on externally perceptible and measurable data. 

But marketers have been basically absent from this transformation, keeping definitions and experience of brand an externality, an intangible component of business practice. There’s management science, and then there’s evolved the parascience of brand. We talk about images and intention, and the real world cares about, well, real things. 

And we’re surprised that the best we get from the rest of the organizations for whom we work or serve is often begrudging tolerance? Or, worse, that consumer satisfaction and trust in corporations is at historic lows?

Sure, branding gets highlighted in press releases and corporate reports when it’s convenient, but the rest of the time we fight a rear-guard action:

  • Our budgets are constantly under attack
  • We are required to make arbitrary, cross-column cuts whenever there’s a downturn in sales, and
  • We’re held accountable for immediate sales results and other outcomes that aren’t even a part of what we set out to do.

We feel constantly misunderstood and underappreciated, that we need to educate the heathens, and bemoan the fact that we’re not sitting at the table in the C-suite, crafting business strategy with those very lesser-types from the operational departments.

We fundamentally don’t acknowledge this dichotomy between the pursuit of quality (statistical processes and software tools) and pursuit of brand (customer perceptions and intent). 

Worse, we don’t even have a competing theology. 

Many of the management approaches have consistent, agreed-upon criteria by which to practice and measure their work. Branding has no such underpinning to which everyone agrees. The self-help cult EST had more organization than the branding community. We find new experts instead of agreed-upon principles. We’re kind of like a loose affiliation of UFO enthusiasts.   

We’ve made a nice island for ourselves. 

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