I think this is something that'll turn into a Campaign piece when I have to submit something over the weekend, but I wanted to write some about it here first, because it's wandering around in my head and it ties up some threads for me.
And it was finally precipitated for me by all the furore over the 2012 logo. I was struck by how much of the criticism involved people pointing and laughing at the vacuous and flabby brand jargon employed in its defense. And this lined up with a conversation we were having at psfk about how the idea of a brand has been so devalued by overuse, over-claim and over-thinking. So in the usual tradition of me being unable to have a single coherent thought, here are a bundle of ideas.
But here's a distinction before we start. I'm not going to argue that brands don't exist and we shouldn't ever think about them in those terms. But I am going to argue that most branding/communication theory is nonsense and that the flaccid rhetoric that tends to surround the word is mostly unhelpful and counterproductive. And I'm probably going to contradict myself, repeat myself and disagree with myself.
Branding is no longer the future of business.
There was a point in the 80s when branding was the future of business. Businesses realised you could stick brand value on their balance sheets, so they did. Consultants realised they could charge a lot of money for advice about brands so they did. And the money people looked to the branding people (often conflated with the marketing people) for all the money making ideas. So you got line extensions, big ads, expensive logos, brand onions. You got branding. And most of it was as intellectually rigorous as phrenology. Actually it was probably more like Scientology; it was somewhere between a fake religion and a false science.
Not everything is a brand
Fairly soon you had huge consultancies charging people big sums to talk to them about their brands. And it was, of course, in their interests to say that everything was a brand. Yup, that's a brand, we can advise you on that. It's about as useful as being a thing consultant and saying that everything is a thing. That eventually leaked into the media and you got Brand Beckham, and Brasilian Football or Welsh Singing being described as 'brands'. The low point for me was when Channel 4 got a load of ad people in to talk about Brand Blair when he announced his resignation.
This was brought home most forcefully to me by working with Honda, who had an inherent distrust of the word brand and refused to let us use it. This may well be a broader Japanese instinct. They thought of branding as a trick to disguise a weak product.
Branding is being replaced by design/technology as the future of business.
The dismal nature of the branding science has started to become clear to business recently and they're starting to vote with their investments and appointments. They're turning from the people who create perceptions of value to the people who create actual value - the designers, technologists, innovators. Hence branded utility, hence 'design is the new management consultancy', hence the current Business Week heroes being IDEO and Ives not CHI and Chiat Day. Hence the limited tenures of CMOs. Hence the rise of communications businesses that can actually make stuff rather than just think of stuff.
It's not just that 'branding science' is bollocks, it's also to do with the sterility of branding culture.
The PSFK last week was great, really well organised, smart people, good speakers. But I have to admit, I didn't hear that much was that new or stimulating. It was mostly the same old stuff. (And I was as bad as everyone else.) I think that's partly because we're stuck in an intellectual cul-de-sac; the brand model is broken and it's stopping us thinking. A lot of communications thinking at the moment seems to be about taking all the old assumptions and just applying them to different channels and different technologies. It's as if the phrenologists, on finally realising that phrenology wasn't working, decided to just feel the bumps on people's feet instead. People like Mark are trying to shove us out of those patterns and I think the sustainability debate will help to do that too, because it forces us to examine some basic assumptions, but branding is just not an intellectually fertile or engaging field right now.
And I sat in the psfk thing watching the twittering coming from reboot and Dan's write-ups coming from Postopolis and I think a lot of it's to do with the fact that branding exists in a tight, hierarchical, inward-facing culture, and while that helped to institutionalise it and strengthen it while the going was good, as soon as the foundations get knocked a little it doesn't have the flexibility to recover. I know the grass always looks greener but the contrast between the branding business culture and the culture of 'web 2.0' and design innovation is worth marking. They seem to delight in sharing every little thought that crosses their minds, they tend towards open events, intellectual curiosity, and huge ambition. No wonder business finds the language and culture of design and web2.0 infectious and engaging in comparison to the smugness and false doctrines of the branding business. There is energy, optimism and a thirst for outside influence in their conversations that I don't see in talk about brands.
The baby/bathwater caveat
Which is not to say obviously, that everything written about brands is rubbish, that there are no such things as brands, that all advertising is a waste of money or any of that simplistic nonsense. The idea of a brand is a useful one, provided it's used carefully, not as a subsitute for product, company, organisation, service, design, logo, idea, style of singing or thing. And while I've somewhat distinguished above the difference between 'real value' and the percieved value that branded communications can create that's obviously a false distinction. The value that the Balls ad injects into a Sony TV is real and is probably cheaper and more effective than putting actual technological innovation in the product. It's just you can't survive on that alone anymore (if you ever could.)
The way forward
I think it's the hubris we have to get rid of. Launching logos is not the way forward. A logo should be repository of meaning, not a substitute for it. And you have to build that meaning, not borrow it. We should be announcing smart and interesting things and then saying; by the way, this is the logo for it.
I suspect if we recognised our limitations that would also help us remember what we are good at; the power of the eyecandy, (via matt) the creation of experience hooks, we can occasionally do magic, but we need to remember our place.