Branding Isn't Marketing

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

The two terms are no more synonyms than second cousins can be considered siblings.

Further, the definitions of the concepts are no more concrete than those for love, justice, and the word is. Not even two practitioners of either dark art will tell you the same thing. Ditto for managers who might otherwise share the same cube array and lousy heath insurance plan.

This is a problem outside of academia when you want to either 1) change or modify one of the practices, and/or 2) measure either objectively.

It’s also hard when a dim bulb like yours truly has just written a book declaring that branding doesn’t work. 

"Of course it does," I’ll often hear, usually followed with widely divergent, subjective definitions of branding. "I like brand x," one answer will continue. "I think brand y is a luxury purchase," explains another. "I’m just brand z’s sort of customer," a third answer might reassure.

So when I reiterate that branding doesn’t accomplish anything — it doesn’t prompt those associations they cite, and doesn’t result in anything that should matter to companies — I get a uniform blank stare.

"Are you saying that marketing doesn’t work?" a few folks have offered up, meekly. Argh. No wonder negotiating cease-fires and global mergers is so difficult, not to mention wedding prenups and teenager curfew times. 

Definitions matter.

I don’’ just think marketing works, I know it works. I define marketing as:

  • communicating that influences business-relevant consumer or customer behaviors…most notably (and ultimately) buying things

Branding is a bit tougher for even me to define. If marketing is about getting people to do things, branding is most often defined as the effort to make them think things. We all know from real-life experience that thought precedes action (at least in the life experiences we choose to recollect), so it would make sense to hope to influence it. 

So branding is the frame in which marketing paints its pictures.

It’s this definition that I challenge in my book. I say that brands don’t exist like that. They’re not things, thoughts, picture frames, or any other metaphor you may have heard. There’s no there there to build and preserve them; no mental function that feeds or draws upon them, or upon which they reside.

Sure, people think and feel things, but trying to manipulate these imaginary, transitive, internal states if akin to believing that we can adjust the positions of planets and stars by yelling at them.

Talking isn’t enough, if it ever was. What matters is getting people to do things, and it’s from those behaviors that all of those squishy emotional state arise. Manipulate the actions and you influence the thinking, not versa visa.

So my definition of branding is

  • everything else companies choose to communicate that has no relevance on the objectives of marketing. If it did, it would cease being branding, and be marketing. 

Branding isn’t marketing. At least according to the First Edition of the Dim Bulb Dictionary.

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