Your Branding Is Useless

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

After yesterday’s deconstruction of Interbrand’s proof that human beings frolicked with the dinosaurs, I want to look past stock valuation on Wall Street and see if we can find any measure of the existence of brands in the outside world.

If branding matters — and by branding I mean the marketing communications that companies propagate in hopes of attaching non-functional associations to products and services, not stuff that informs about real functional benefits or uses — then it should have casual influence on purchase. No amount of getting people to think fond thoughts would be good enough to warrant spending hard-earned money, right?

I examine this reality in some detail in my new book, Branding Only Works on Cattle, and my conclusions is that most branding is utterly useless.

Ever notice that most of the stuff you see amounts to getting consumer attention, and usually involves something funny, obnoxious, weird, stupid, overtly sexual, or insanely abstract?

That’s because a branding campaign is deemed a success if it gets people to look up from whatever it was they were doing, and then, when asked later on, admit that they remembered doing so. Branding isn’t supposed to sell anything more than an idea.

Exactly how, when, or even if it will influence consumer behavior are questions to which none of the rules of logic, financial reporting, or morality apply. We assume branding has implicit, a priori value, like Platonic absolutes. Brands are so large and all-encompassing that they can be the cause or excuse for just about any communications activity. 

So consumers shooting their own commercials and posting them on YouTube? Branding. Product references in news stories? Branding. Hosting a booth for folks to walk past at a trade show, or throwing a lavishly expensive party? Branding. That LED circuit board promo that looked like bombs in Boston in early 2007? Branding. Commercials that don’t advertise a product feature or benefit?  Branding. Magazine ads full of white space and small print? Well, you get the idea. 

Experts possess every rationale and tool to sense the presence of branding — focus groups, exit polls, follow-up customer surveys, even brain scans – all to explain that brand have value out there in the marketplace. When ad trade publications report on branding, it’s like reading a movie review.

But there’s no there out there.

Branding is based on an outdated and invalid desire to manipulate and control consumers’ unconscious. It looks good and feels good to the people who produce it, but branding has little to no effect on consumer behavior. And if and when it does, there’s no good way to know it for sure. Companies do it mostly out of habit and hope.

And anyway, the idea that a marketer could fully analyze another person’s thoughts and emotions has the romantic (and slightly scary) appeal of a Freudian fantasy, along with all the psychobabble mumbo-jumbo that comes with it. If we could get tell someone else to do things, everyone would be thin, nobody would believe in UFOs, and the Soviets would have won the Cold War. And our kids would do what we want them to do.

People purchase goods and services, not air. We always bought things, not just ideas. Sure, we think (at least most of us), but what is discernable, understandable, measurable, and sustainable – to consumers, and within the businesses that sell to them — is what we do…what ideas we assign to those things we buy, not what we’re told to label them with.

We neglect Freud, and follow Skinner instead. For every purchase, there’s a Donnie Darko-like trail of events that led up to it, and another chronology extending into the future.

Marketing works because it’s the play-by-play for that behavior. Branding is nothing more than the color commentary, with the sound turned down most of the time.

So it just doesn’t matter if gurus describe brands as stories, emotions, dreams, personalities, orgones, or waves of ESP. It’s irrelevant, because it presumes to influence what people think. But it doesn’t do any of that, or can only do it imprecisely and infrequently. 

The brief, 20th Century interlude that was characterized by top-down, authoritative mass media, and its trusty henchman, branding, is over.

So if you rely on, or presume to deliver brands, you’re going to have to find better answers, sooner or later. So start with this frightening thought: your branding is useless. There’s no equity out there. And no amount of after-the-fact voodoo nonsense from your branding agency partner (even if it’s as gloriously complicated as Interbrand’s) will change this fact.

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