The Fatwa on My Head

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

You probably haven’t caught wind of it, but some brand traditionalists have issued a fatwa on me. It’s quite a compliment, really, and kind of comforting that I don’t rate the scrutiny of a Salman Rushdie. But they’re still pissed off, and they wish me dead.

Why? Because I question our beliefs in the power of branding. I’m not so sure we can manipulate what people believe in any concerted or sustainable way, and I don’t think it would matter if we could.

Saying just that means I’m too dangerous to listen to, and it sets the purists off on really passionate diatribes on how I’ve got things so wrong. I’ve tried to talk to them — it’s a self-referencing echo chamber of a handful of numbnuts — but they conveniently ignore my replies, or cut stuff out of context so they can better make their points. I won’t do them the honor of promoting their nonsense directly, but you can probably find it if you search my name, followed by "evil" or "dumb guy deserving a slow, painful demise."

But here I can tell you what I think.

Just like my argument — which is really more of a series of questions, as I don’t think I, or any of us, really has the answer to why brands are harder to communicate, more difficult to maintain, and nearly impossible to rely upon for any price premium anymore (and yet the traditionalists maintain the answer is to keep doing more of the same, which sure seems like a clinical definition of insanity) — but anyway, just like my argument is simply that mental states aren’t consistent or reliable, and hence may not be the best target for our branding efforts, their argument is simple, too: brands exist because people think stuff about things. 

Duh. When asked, folks can remember words or terms associated with brand names. It’s obvious that brands exist. People think different things about Apple than Microsoft, or BMW versus GM. To suggest otherwise isn’t just heretical, it’s stupid. So I’m a doomed ingrate.

Well, I say not so much. There are two basic problems with the "I think brands, therefore they are" argument:

First, if all we had to do was think things to make them true, then ghosts and UFOs would be real, as would the conspiracy to blow up the World Trade Towers, implementation of the Protocols of Zion, and I’d look 35 instead of a few days older than, well, older. We human beings have deep, conflicted internal lives that are subjective, imprecise, self-referencing, and ever-changing. Brands exist because people think about them? Seems like a pretty dubious and unreliable place to look, even if your survey questionnaire says otherwise.

Second, it’s doubly dubious because let’s assume that we could implant consumers with our image of brands…the connection to subsequent behavior — purchase behavior…buying things — is about as dicey and incomplete as the thoughts about brands themselves. People regularly think one thing and then do another, sometimes to their own surprise (and chagrin). Fond feelings toward names or logos don’t have a direct link to sales. We can strive to make people think happy thoughts until we’ve exhausted our marketing budgets, but if branding is intended to get people to think about branding, it’s sort of a circular, pointless pursuit. 

My premise is that we marketers have got it bass-ackwards: brands emerge from behavior, and we shouldn’t try to impose them on things. We don’t put things in people’s brains as much as they do, and then they rearrange, recreate, and mess it all up, like every minute of every day.

Companies might to better to re-imagine their branding as the efforts they take to do things…real actions far beyond the invention of creative marketers, and intended to be relevant to the lives of consumers in ways that prompt actions. We could then study the resulting behaviors as evidence of our branding efficacy. And we’d have an objective, reliable palette of data that everyone could understand and agree upon.

I say brands are behavior, not something beyond or above it. Again, just saying something like that makes smoke come out of the brand purists’ ears. 

It would be a great debate, though, wouldn’t it? There’s lots to consider, and our conclusions could affect how businesses go about spending billions of dollars every year.

But when it comes to a handful of folks who want to pocket some of that money by delivering the consistently wrong answers, it’s easier to wish me dead for asking the right questions.

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