My answer to: "Is corporate branding morally wrong?"

Corporate branding is neither moral nor amoral. It only represents the effort to build an image then defend it. The Nazis were masters of positioning, very effective, and the soul of evil as well. On the other hand, there are numerous brands that represent and live the brand promise of morality - Starbucks, Whole Foods, and Panera come to mind immediately.

Objective vs. Subjective Culture and Branding - Simmel

What if we coupled innovation, meaningful positioning, strategic design, cohesive and coherent organizational culture, information technology, corporate social responsibility, etc. etc. and actually came up with an integrated approach to running a business. That would be cool.

The sociologist Georg Simmel would have thought branding was a bad thing - it is fast outpacing the capacity of individuals to think independently and creative on their own. He said: "The tragedy of culture occurs when the growth of objective culture outpaces the growth of subjective culture."

(If anyone is interested here is an article I wrote awhile back on Simmel and branding.) 

It's true that Simmel's "objective vs. subjective culture" is not that simple.

Wherever you stand on the matter - that it's a facile distinction or not - it's clear as rain that you see it all the time.

Look at today's Wall Street Journal - the Personal Journal section - top of the fold story is about people who go on vacation and HIRE PHOTOGRAPHERS to document how happy they are. That is the epitome of the clash between subjective (private creation of meaning) and objective (assimilation of the private to the public).

I am so tempted to berate these people. Yet what are they doing that is so different than real life? Are we not all, constantly, battling the conflict between simply living our lives, and framing/reframing?

The insidious corruption of the personal with the commercial. The nagging realization that while your loved ones love you for your use-value, the world only wants your exchange-value. And the sadness that these are not, and can never be, the same. 

Business wisdom, confusion for the discipline of brand - new blog from Prof. David Aaker as an example.

Prof. Aaker, who in my view is the intellectual thought leader of branding today, writes a useful post, "Strategies from the New Emerging Market Competitors," breaking down the competitive advantage of emerging multinational corporations (EMNCs).

But at the same time he muddies the waters when it comes to explaining what branding is, exactly. --- The basic argument: MNCs particularly in China excel at making

1) low-cost products made with low-cost labor (ethics in the parking lot for the moment)

2) products that focus on the most important customer wants

3) (as Marian Salzman has put it) "hyperlocal" knowledge that facilitates true reach

4) brand-building expertise that focuses innovation in a particular way (examples - HTC and Lenovo)

The problem: Brand is #4 on the list instead of driving 1, 2 and 3.

If brand = business then why not structure the post so that all business decisions flow from the positioning of the organization?

Because the net effect of this blog post structure is that branding is, once again, an afterthought.

Why Don't Brands Live Up To Their Promises?

(This is my response cross-posted from my group Brand Masters on LinkedIn)

Don't they get that the hypocrisy p***es people off to the point where they patronize other businesses?

But if you drill deeper you probably know that there are holes in this expectation.

1. Generally, leaders rise to the top because they are calculating. If they calculate that morality helps them, fine. If not...well, fine too. So they lack a filter that tells them to "do the right thing" and this leads to shortcuts that also shortcut the brand/business (to me these are interchangeable).

Yesterday I was on the phone with a customer service representative who literally hung up the phone when I got testy and asked for a supervisor. I called back, got the supervisor, and the supervisor apologized in the most textbook terms - I could tell he was reading out of the training manual. Customer service organizations "train" supervisors to "act with care" but there is no real humanity behind it. (Because how are the workers treated and paid, really? This supervisor intimated that the person who hung up on me would be punished ('dealt with')...I noticed his vaguely threatening tone of voice and wondered what it was like for frontline customer service folks to deal with both angry customers and nasty sadistic supervisors like him.)

2. Customers value things when they patronize a business, but that's not the same thing as having values.There are all sorts of brands that cater to customers who value things that are totally unhealthy, immoral, unethical, off-limits, etc.

One of my favorite memories of my mom (I was raised Orthodox Jewish so this was a no-no) was her grabbing me at the tender age of 5, jumping in the car, and zooming off to McDonald's to get a fish filet sandwich. Her exact words: "It's an emergency!" Meaning, a McDonald's emergency - had to have that delicious and unhealthy food. (I cannot tell you how many Jewish people freaked out when we found out that the french fries there, which workers constantly assured us were boiled in vegetable oil, were in fact fried in lard. "So that's why!" we all said, then made excuses to keep going back ("They must have fixed this.")

3. Customers disagree about what they want from the business and more broadly what they want from the government in terms of regulation. If there were more consistency among customers as to what constitutes a baseline, then businesses would follow suit.

The requirement to show calorie counts (at least in Maryland). I love it and will forever be grateful to Michelle Obama for it. Others hate the intrusion of the "food police" into our lives and choices.

4. Customers manage competing values when they decide whether to patronize a business.

Forever 21. We have heard that they mistreat the workers by making them stay late. We also know (because we see in the display) that you can get cheap jewelry there and look pretty good. So there are two things going on - economics and morality. It depends which one is paramount at the moment.

5. Brand people historically have been advertising people - the Mad Men (and Women). Ad folks, by and large, do not command respect as people who fundamentally understand the imperatives of business. There are a few reasons for this - but they don't really matter for the purpose of this conversation.

It goes back to rebranding branding as a BUSINESS function, a point I make over and over again at every opportunity. I regret that I did not get an MBA, it would have helped in this respect. Sadly, C types love when you throw quant-sounding stuff around even if it's total garbage that any undergraduate taking a summer class at the community college could see through.

Response to: "In the high-tech industry does running a large television advertising campaign really help brand building or lead generation?"

First posted to Quora (7/3/12):

Brand building is a long-term activity while lead generation is short-term. 

Brand building yields few visible results in the short term, but carried out consistently over a period of years, provides an outstanding support for lead generation in the short-term.

TV ad campaigns can effectively build brands, for sure. This includes the high-tech industry or any industry. 

* The Apple campaign pitting the cool Apple person vs. the Microsoft geek decimated their image and built Apple's to the hilt - it was not about selling product but building an image. 

* The Intel campaigns with their distinctive "bam bam bam bam" sound, and the employees behind it, built an image for the company as a leader. Of course ads work.

So the question is not whether ad campaigns work but whether they work FOR YOUR PURPOSE. And whether they yield sufficient return on investment.

If the sales campaign (you say lead generation so it makes me think sales) is oriented toward a business customer, TV ads probably are too large an investment to yield a short-term result. Word of mouth and trade shows would be a more cost-effective route.

If however you are aiming to the average person like myself, and you seek to reach a large audience, then TV ads start to make more sense as a way to build a base for later sales efforts. This is particularly true if you're trying to sell expensive product - TV ads make it seem that the product is well-made and well-funded.

About my new group on LinkedIn, Brand Masters

As begin the process of writing the next book on branding, it seems a good thing to start a conversation. Helps to jog my thinking.

In response to the question, what is Brand Masters all about?
 It's meant to be a discussion for people who have an intense interest in branding + an academic bent. Brand ninjas, brand samurais, disciples of branding who seek to know the Tao, if you will. What drives brand? What makes it work? What are the riddles, the paradoxes, the evolving issues that are unprecedented but that must be addressed?

The first issue is the freebie paradox. Which is, obviously, that - to get known, to move merchandise - one gives something away or discounts it. The joke about "why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?" is no joke - it is serious. For five years I personally have given away a great deal of brand insight...and recent comments have led me to question why. They have led me to consider that perhaps I am done building credibility through ubiquity and now must turn to another strategy, exclusivity. I am working on a book. I won't say any more.

The second is the issue of whether you can do a good job branding a client, if you don't especially see eye-to-eye with them or are dissimilar personality-wise. It's something I wonder about, as I can see it going both ways. On the one hand consultant and client do well when they are close; I've seen this dynamic in action. On the other, you are better as a "stranger in a strange land" so that you can see them objectively. How do you handle this? How do you think about it? It's similar, I guess to the journalist who writes about war while embedded.

I see so much of sociology, my native discipline, at work in brandology. And so much of my own life - my own upbringing, the demands of my surroundings - intertwined with the discipline. Just this weekend in the heatwave here in DC, where did people run? Not to any government center that I knew about. They ran to the mall. To plug in their devices, shop for fast food, get a sense of normalcy. Starbucks, Panera, Barnes & Noble were all packed. We were trying to act like everything was OK, but really we were scared that things were falling apart - trees were down all over the place, there were no traffic lights for a long time - and the police were blocking off streets and directing traffic.

I felt scared about what could happen in a more serious disaster. We seemed so unprepared. Brands helped to make us feel better. How is that possible if brands are manufactured, fake?

These are the kinds of things I'd like to explore in the group - the paradoxes and richness that are at the heart of branding. Which, in the end, is creating an artificial person, a religion, out of something that never existed before.

Book Project - On Hiatus Till August

More to follow...

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