Branding inside out

Hope y’all had a splendid pack of holidays.

Over the holidays I had a chance to read a book or two that
sparked some thinking. One was titled Beyond Branding: how the new values of
transparency and integrity are changing the world of brands
. It’s a
compilation of articles by what I’d have to call recovering marketers. Most of
the writers had been careerists in marketing and advertising, but what they saw
gave them second thoughts about how those arts are practiced.

Alan Mitchell wrote an article titled “Beyond Brand
Narcissism.” Basically he maintains that too many companies get so enthralled
by their own groupthink that they fall in love with the image they spin for
their brand. During the ‘90s branding—really a means to an end—often became an end in
itself. (A recent Fast Company article uses the term “obsessive branding
disorder.”) According to Mitchell the result was brand
narcissism and hyperbole.

Belief in the power of branding techniques has caused
many marketing departments to lose touch with reality and client experience.
Branding excess has resulted in the loss of credibility for the practice and
attention-getting power for messages. For instance, the most sought-after 18-
to 35-year-old demographic is evidently almost impervious to brand imaging and
messaging through TV and other traditional media. And on the internet I’ve seen
marketing referred to as “putting the best foot forward” on the one hand, and
“managed mendacity” on the other. The authors’ recipe for marketing salvation in
Beyond Branding is authenticity and transparency.

I think the internet has the potential to encourage this
development. I think of it as branding turned inside out. Instead of brands
being what a company says about its product or service, intenet branding will
necessarily include what experienced consumers say about it. What a concept!
Cheap, pervasive internet input allows the accumulation of impressions from
thousands of people into statistically significant measures of favorable or
unfavorable experience. When you did Christmas shopping online you may have
taken advantage of ratings and reviews of books, cameras, and products of many
kinds on Amazon and other purchasing sites.

Branding of the past was about managing messages over a
limited set of controlled channels. Mainstream media—essentially a marketing
message machine—has had a co-dependent relationship with advertisers who paid
for airtime or inches of space. Consumers had no public forum in which to
express their experience. But the internet has opened an unlimited number of
channels of communication. Each one may be tiny, but cumulatively they can be
powerful. Blogs and even consumer comment web sites are proliferating. Through
them customers and constituents get a chance to say what their experience has
been. So if customers experience a disparity between the advertised brand image
of a product, service, or company and their own experience, they have a small
but not insignificant channel of their own through which they can give their
viewpoint. Also, the internet has systems for search and aggregation of
comments. The little voices can be added together.

Of course, this requires a big change of concept by
marketers. Many companies and organizations are freaked-out by blogs where
customers or employees are saying things they don’t control. But the future of branding calls for marketers to
engage on a more one-to-one basis with the public. As a consumer or client, I
think that’s gotta be a good thing.

This could be good for organizations like the ACS. We have
thousands of volunteers with good experiences. That’s why I’ve been pushing for
active engagement with bloggers associated with the ACS. And there’s probably nothing with which 100% of
people have a positive experience. The thing is, to build a
reputation on the internet organizations are going to have to mobilize their
supporters and pay attention to their detractors. I think some real strategic
thinking leading to active steps about branding specific to the internet is
in order.

One comment

  1. David, thank you for your review of Beyond Branding and your additional comments—I really enjoyed reading them.