Less brand more brain please: marketers… looking beyond our own reflection


A couple of weeks ago I was asked the following question in an interview:

 “What brand would you LOVE to work on?”

I gave the following answer:

“I don’t have one”

I received some flack afterwards for apparently not being more focused in my response and have thought a lot since whether I should have answered differently. 

The truth is I only ever really consider “brand” when I’m refining a solution for a client. For example when I’ve done all the research and data analysis I need to do…then I will apply a brand filter and reframe the relevant insights as brand direction. At no point does the brand influence the “exploration”, unless it’s specifically for “brand research”.

Such indifference to brand seduction may be in part because I don’t have a T.V, which is arguably more successful at bonding with the Subconscious: messages don’t gain traction. When brands do check into my Conscious, I have to say the experience has been disappointing. Having been persuaded by a friend to try Clinique, a brand that has such a strong reputation in the cosmetics field, neither the sales assistants or actual products met the expectation. I also recently bought some headphones by Philips, but the ergonomic fit of the earpiece itself is awful and I wouldn’t buy them again.  As a consumer, I just haven’t had great consistent brand experiences, sooner or later they let me down. Even Apple on occasion. <Cue shocked hush.>

Brands are largely just sets of rules and I honestly don’t mind which brand I work on as a planner, because the interesting aspect is the brief and the problem that needs solving. The rules of the brand simply mark out the boundaries of the territory to explore. A brand is merely an intangible outcome of a series of successful decisions. 

Advertising folk get all hot and bothered about CPG/FMCG brands because they are born out of rapidly evolving industries where ideas [can] seed quickly, budgets [can] be lavish and attention centre-stage; all necessary in a medium where we refresh our attention every five seconds.

Even working on life insurance and pension products, the projects were often more interesting because the products and associated problems were more complex. You learn about legislation, regulation, investment, niche markets. You research behaviours that go beyond your immediate experience as a consumer.

I recently read the question in the latest copy of Strategy magazine: “How does a customer feel after interacting with a brand?”

And I thought – they don’t…? When does a customer ever consciously reflect on interacting with a brand? They get exasperated when queues are too long in the store, or excited if the packaging looks expensive or if they get a good discount on an item. They may weigh up the necessary lifespan of a product: does it need to last or would they just replace it in a few months? They may wonder if a product will make them look cool. But I doubt (and happy to be proven wrong) that they ever think about how they feel with a “brand”. That’s just marketing-speak.

In exploring definitions of “brand” by other strategy folk, I came across a quote by a worldly chap called Jerry Holtaway:

” “Brand” is a proxy for numerous confusing and often conflicting ideas, practices, beliefs and theories.

To prove this, simply stop using the word “brand” and substitute the company, product or service name – or by simply not saying the b-word.

So something like, “The IBM brand represents…” becomes, “IBM represents…”. IBM’s “brand personality’ simply becomes “IBM’s personality” and their “brand advocates” simply become “advocates”.

For me this strips away an unnecessary layer and relates thinking to the real world, rather than this mythical, nebulous concept known as ‘branding’. I also believe it helps business people (executives who feel they have nothing to do with the “brand”) to see that a proposed idea isn’t just “for the brand” but for them.”


Which I really liked.

And then I found one from good old Seth… (and I didn’t seek him out specifically, it was Google)

“Here’s my definition: A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another. If the consumer (whether it’s a business, a buyer, a voter or a donor) doesn’t pay a premium, make a selection or spread the word, then no brand value exists for that consumer. “


Historically I’ve argued that my role as a digital strategist was to humanise technology, but maybe it’s about humanising marketing instead.