We should rebrand the idea of “brand”

Let's rebrand branding

A couple of weeks ago, I landed in Toronto from DFW. The customs line was insanely long; I ended up waiting on it about 1 hour+. I was kind of near a co-worker, but not close enough to actually speak to him, so I entertained myself in two ways:

  1. The guy in front of me was an old-school sales guy in the construction industry. He had a pitch the next day and was reviewing slides with his partner. They were talking about how the client was taking all the contenders (those pitching) out to a whiskey bar at 4pm tomorrow after the pitches, and announcing the winner there. “Could be kind of awkward…” he kept saying. His slide deck sucked. It was too long, too many words, and I’m not sure he even showcased their value to this client. As you can see, I’m a big judge of stuff.
  2. I read a bunch of articles on my phone via Pearson Airport Wi-Fi. I remember one that I read, but can’t find right now, about how branding — as a concept — needs to be rebranded. We toss that word around willy-nilly and as such, it loses meaning. I feel that way about a ton of words in business right now.

This stuff is near and dear to my heart — I work in marketing, and I’ve written about “the decline of brand” before — and I honestly believe most people in the marketing/advertising/branding/promotional field don’t completely understand that “marketing” and “branding” in the modern age just really mean “storytelling.”

In short: your brand has a value, right? A story? An origin point? A path? A process? Challenges it encountered? Pain points? High points? That makes your brand like every single person walking on Earth. You know what that means? That your brand can resonate with them.

But most people forget this. They forget you can talk about failure, and talk about value, and talk about case studies … and they try to couch everything in “brand” and “brand guidelines” or “brand standards,” which totally confuse the issue.

Just ran across this article this morning, and … BOOM:

In the same respect, “brand, ” which has distinguished itself from advertising, is now synonymous with a company’s name and a series of strict guidelines. People say, “Our brand is doing this,” or argue that something isn’t “in line with the brand”; but what they really mean is, “That’s not in line with the PDF I have that tells me you can’t put that logo there.” This misses the whole point of what a brand is, and how it can drive thinking about what the company does next.


The challenge is no longer telling customers what your brand means; instead, it’s defining the idea you want to be known for, and then thinking, looking, and acting in a way that makes your customers believe in you. Some agencies and companies get the first part right—articulating what they’re offering, what problem it’s solving, and for which segment of people. But many don’t then put the brand idea to work where it’s most important: at the moments where they actually engage with customers. If your brand idea isn’t a guiding force that threads all efforts together and guides every single decision you make—about the business, the products, the customer experience, and, yes, the communications—then your brand won’t translate to a coherent experience you create for your customers, and you’ll have failed at earning their attention and devotion.

I couldn’t agree more with both statements.

Look, in short form here’s the issue: most workplaces are about process. People want a process defined, then they want that process followed. That allows a human being to habituate, which means they need to deal with/think about less at work. Process is everything to most people; “owning a process” is sacred to many.

Let's Kill Branding Guidelines

This is what happened to brand. We buried it in process. Like that first pull-quote says, most marketing people throw around “brand” and what they mean is … “This is what’s on a PDF of bullet points detailing what I can do.”

It’s miserable, because listen … while I’m a big fan conceptually of process (one needs to be in place so that people understand their goals and deliverables and how to reach them), what we often do is create process where process doesn’t need to exist. When we do that — which happens a lot in marketing departments, because the direct ROI of marketing is often unclear to C-Suite top dogs — we sacrifice real opportunities for engagement, you know?

Humans don’t want polished, glossy messages; that’s what “brand guidelines” lead to. Humans have been seeing that for decades. They know how to ignore that. (Hey, I’ve written about that too!) But if you’re out there being real and talking about your path, your journey, your failures, your highs and lows, your value, your value in other people’s eyes, etc… if you’re doing that, that’s real. That’s not brand guidelines, but in a long play, it might make you a bit more revenue anyway.


Ted Bauer