So you want to start building your tree? Well, it is not an easy task. First, you must plant some roots. Then hammer some wood and bark on top of them. Tie on several branches and glue some blossom, for the bees to come over and pollinate them. Definitely glue some leaves to create a murmur in the air, so that the bees know you have a tree. Now wait for the bees, so that you can finally have fruit. Sometimes, to speed up the process, it helps to make a special offer for bees – e.g. “Pollinate 2 flowers, get honey from 3!”.

You may face some tough questions in the process. Which colour would appeal most to bees (so that they feel that this tree is full of energy, but is also caring and lovely), yellow or red? What shape of branches will make them feel more like pollinating your tree rather than other trees? Exactly how many leaves do you need to make them whisper just right enough, not too loud or too soft? So at some point you might want to hire some tree-building consultants and bee-researchers, who have already helped building a lot of trees.

Sadly, you may find out sooner or later that the murmur of leaves does make some nice noise, but does not bring desired results. Some bees will come and leave, but you won’t have any fruit. Tree-building consultants would tell you that the branches are all messed up and tangled, and it costs much to maintain all those branches anyway, so maybe you should cut a few. Bee-research will report that the majority of the bees nowadays completely switch off from listening to leaves whisper, and prefer to get tree information from other bees (so cut your leave budget too). I just wonder if any of them would have the courage to tell you the truth: you DON’T have a tree. That beautiful thing standing there, costing you time, effort and money, is a fake built-up tree. Bees really do not care for fake, neither can a fake tree bear fruit.

This (very long) analogy for the woes of brand building came to my mind when I was reading the book of my colleague, Jonathan Salem Baskin, “Branding Only Works on Cattle”. Jonathan seriously goes after the whole non-working brand-building thing. He is not the only one having given his thoughts about it. Naomi Klein tackled this in her “No Logo”; there is a lovely book called “OBD: Obsessive Branding Disorder” by Lucas Conley, author for “Fast Company” magazine... And generally if you google “Branding is dead”, you will find a stunning amount of material. The issue is definitely not unnoticed, but somehow most marketing people seem to have a blind spot for this.

I was asking myself: why did something which worked rather well in the beginning, suddenly stop working? The whole branding idea, which seemed so sensible a couple of decades ago, could not suddenly become outdated just like that. And it came to my mind that building brands never actually worked. Growing did. When the fathers of brand-building started to promote their new idea, they relied on those products which naturally developed into something bigger than their trademarks. Something which existed in customers’ minds not only in the shopping list, but lived there as a separate space, creating memories, emotions, ideas, taking them some place else. Some time later, when everybody jumped on that new brand-building gig, marketing gurus had to create a separate name for the original things – they call them power brands these days. But in fact, power brands in reality were and are just real brands – unlike other products calling themselves brands or anticipating to be ones; the few real things in the sea of fakeness. Those products which, through hard work and – often – serious communication, naturally GREW into brands, giving additional, non-tangible, but still very valuable advantages for customers.

But what if your product doesn’t have all this? What if all data shows that your brand awareness is high, and image is OK, and customers tell that “This is a brand for me”, but none of these actually correlate with your sales numbers, and no matter how much you spend on pushing those brand parameters, you don’t see them convert into sales results? Well, it might mean that all these brand parameters just have no relevance for you, because you don’t have a brand.

Take it easy now, breathe deeply. Yes, there is a chance that your brand is non-existent. But there is also a chance that you just own a decent product. A nice, hard-working trademark to offer to the customer – with tangible values. From a customer point of view, it is natural. Customers can’t think of all products they may consider buying, as ‘brands’ – this is humanly impossible, if you look at supermarket shelves. Most of the products we buy are – and will remain – just the products we buy for objective reasons, without a necessity to complete any gestalts *, no matter how hard the producers try to persuade us that “This brand brings the atmosphere of relaxation and warmth into our stressed lives”. And because of this, a real trademark can work a lot better than a fake brand, as a living berry bush can deliver a lot more than a fake fruit tree. So why don’t just stop caring about fake things and start caring about real ones?

Unlike brands, trademarks do not have all those fata morgana parameters to take care of. Tangible values, see? That’s the trick. It is easy to make a big ad campaign to boost the intangible brand image. It is not easy to offer a well-made product which really helps the customer, and make it so well that the image grows by itself.  For brands, customers may go and search high and low. For a trademark, availability in retail is crucial. For a brand, the problem with delayed delivery might be an anticipation moment; but for a trademark it is an annoying nuisance. It is very difficult to be a trademark. You have to run ten times faster even to stay on the same place. But wait a second – is it really so difficult?

As a trademark owner, you don’t need all the constantly running research to track your 50 brand parameters. You need a couple of waves per year to see where you are, and what the customers want, but that’s it. You don’t have to hire anybody trendy and expensive to reposition your brand and create your message, and make your brand promises for you – because you know what you make, where you stand, and what you can and cannot do. Instead of launching a new multi-million campaign on “Welcome the new Super-Extra-Powerful, also with banana flavour!”, you’d go and make sure that your old faithful Powerful with strawberry flavour gets enough shelf space, and that customer calls are answered, and that the package does not tear-break when you try opening it. And when it’s done, you will gladly communicate it in a decently budgeted sales support campaign. In fact, admitting that you are a trademark, not a brand, can be as easy as just being yourself, and concentrating on your normal things to do and real problems to solve. Doing what you can do and like to do.

So try to ask your self and honestly answer these questions (I promise not to eavesdrop while you do it):

1)   Do I have a brand?

  • Does anyone really care? Do I exist in my customer’s mind or heart as something special? Am I giving to them anything else, then just my product? If I disappear from the market, will my customers be upset?

2)   If not, what do I have then?

  • Am I a trusted, reliable trademark, or just a word on the package? What is actually my offer to the customers? Is it a good offer?

3)   Do I want to be a brand? Why?

  • Is it even sensible to have a brand in my category, or just a good, high quality trademark, which the customers trust, would be sufficient? (yes,some customers might get emotionally attached to their brand of wall paint, because it brings them into a whole new world, but that’s kinda freaky). But primarily – would having a brand bring me more long-term money than I will invest into the process?

4)   If yes, am I ready to grow into one?

  • Am I ready to stand my ground and do my best, so that promises I make don’t get broken? Am I ready to be something bigger than a factory or an office? Do I really care about my customer so much that I want to give them something special, to make their lives better and easier? Do I have a capacity for that? Am I ready to probably wait for a long time till I grow into the real thing?

And if you answered all this successfully and honestly – well, maybe one day your lovely bush will indeed grow into a beautiful, natural, fruit-bearing tree. Happy harvesting!

* I am planning to write a separate post on the (possible) influence of gestalt psychology on development of branding. Till then, you might be interested to read about gestalt in design (and laws of closure and completeness) here:

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