News & Views

Give Me the Freedom of the Gloriously Broad Brand

by Contagious Contributor

John V Willshire, founder of marketing and product innovation studio, Smithery, shares his latest thinking on why he believes brands should engage in a dialogic approach, embracing counter-arguments to define a wider territory, rather than attempting to come to a single, logical argued conclusion on what their brand encapsulates.

And, in the name of dialogue and sparking a debate, we've invited some other leading thinkers to respond to the piece below, so check back to the site over the coming weeks to read their views on what a brand is now, and if they can develop a wide identity or should try and stick to something more defined.

'Keep accepting that more than one idea is true.' - Nilofer Merchant

I find it fascinating how long we spend wrestling with the idea of what a brand is. Whether it's in workshops, presentations, briefs or training, there is a lot of effort that goes in to creating a tight, precise, agreed compression of what any given brand represents, and how it should behave.

Yet I wonder if the internet has made this need for compression and organisation around brand wrangling at best redundant, and at worst counter-productive for business performance. At the start of this year I was reading Richard Sennett's Together, and came across a distinction in types of conversation I'd previously been unaware of. Listening well, said Sennett, produces two sorts of conversation; the dialectic, and the dialogic.

Dialectic conversation is about an exchange of views and ideas which resolves itself in consensus. The goal is to align the participants under a mutually agreed resolution they can all support from that point forwards.

Essentially, there is one right answer.

Dialogic conversation, on the other hand, isn't about reaching a consensus. It's about an exchange between multiple positions, without forcing them all together. By understanding more about other people's views, you will understand more about your own views and ideas. And depending on the circumstances which present themselves, you follow whichever idea is most suitable at the time.

There are many answers, none of them right or wrong, just appropriate to circumstance. When you start to draw apart the dialectic and the dialogic, and think about how it can transcend simple cooperation between people, it becomes a very useful way to think about the difference between how brands are managed, and how the internet works.

The way we work on brands is traditionally very dialectic; it is about the reduction of all possible things a company could be represented as, picking one aspect, compressing it, and abstracting it. A simple, compelling brand proposition. One right answer.

This dialectic consensus, wrangling a complex entity into a one pager, strangling it by onion or pyramid, is very productive in terms of getting a multi-partner team to create one idea together. It's a product of the military approach to hierarchy that was used to make sure things get done in companies all throughout the twentieth century; one idea, cascaded down.

Yet it's the antithesis of how the internet works. The internet is a dialogic space. There is no consensus, no cascading of a single point of view. There is no order.

It's as if the internet is a razor blade, deftly lopping off the spine of your tightly woven brand book, and constantly cutting and reordering the text however it sees most fit. We're not just talking about how people see brand online of course. As they get used to fractal, fragmented view of everything, it spills over into into how they live and understand things in all aspects of their lives.

It's useful to understand this by looking at the research being carried out around the dialogic effect of the internet on other fields of knowledge work.

From an educational standpoint the internet is, as Rupert Wegerif states, 'a dialogic space supporting the interplay of billions of voices'. Wegerif proposes that just teaching children the right answer isn't the job of education anymore, we should instead be teaching them to 'learn, think and thrive in the context of working with multiple perspectives and ultimate uncertainty'.

Then in organisational theory, Tsoukas highlights that 'the engine of knowledge creation is articulation - a continuous process of making knowledge explicit and relevant to the task at hand'. Only through constant, appropriate action by everyone in the company is the shared knowledge of any group changed in a meaningful way. A single, fixed idea no longer suffices in the modern business.

Observing the disruptive influence of the dialogic internet age in other sectors makes it only proper to suggest that a rudimentary dialogic approach for brands would and should be just as disruptive. For instance...
  • Should we rid ourselves of notions of 'a target audience'? A simple, one dimension character to create work for will only ever produce one form of work. Instead, how do you create work for a hundred different audience niches?

  • Should a dialogic brand not have multiple perspectives? Not simply in the 'Transmedia' approach of fragmenting one consistent story, but to go as far as a brand that will happily contradict itself if the circumstances demanded it.

  • Should we rid ourselves of any notion of campaign? If constant articulation is how a brand becomes defined in the world, then brand communications must be a litany of live, lightly filtered communications that flow unhindered into the world.

  • Should we stop trying to judge how successful any of the work we create will be? The ultimate uncertainty that underpins the dialogic age means the only way to know how good something is will be to expose it to the world.

Of course, questions like these are all perhaps subsets of a much more challenging one - what if the way we think about 'brand' is redundant? Trying on a dialogic approach for size makes you realise that in the internet age, a brand isn't a pyramid, or an onion, or any form of compression. It's a BitTorrent file. A massively complex, fragmented, distributed construct that, if it was to be truly understood, must be brought together from its billion locations and viewed as a whole. Which, no matter what the big data gang will tell you, is impossible.

Instead of trying to fight against this reality, to reemploy the outdated beliefs and methodologies to shape and create the work we do with brands, it might be time to embrace the multiple perspectives and ultimate uncertainty of the dialogic brand.

Give us the freedom of a gloriously broad brand, and at every possible point, we'll be able make something that isn't right or wrong, but perfectly appropriate.

So... what's the catch?

The beauty and the curse with dialogical thinking is that a single theory is never right.

This argument is both right and wrong, depending on circumstance.

This is not the only model for brands. The word 'brand' has many meanings, interpretations, rules and principles, many of them at cross-purposes with each other.

Ironically, the 'brand' brand, one of the most powerful and pervasive ideas over the past century, just might be a perfect demonstration of the power of messy, contradictory, fragmented dialogic brands.

All we can do is keep accepting that more than one idea is true.

John V Willshire is founder of marketing and product innovation studio Smithery.

  • References:
  • Together - The rituals, pleasures and politics of cooperation - Richard Sennett
    Dialogic: Education for the Internet Age - Rupert Wegerif
    A Dialogical Approach to the Creation of New Knowledge in Organizations - Haridimos Tsoukas