News & Views

Making Sense of Broad Brands

by Emily Hare

Emily Hare looks back on the debate around dialectic vs. dialogic brands that has been running on the Contagious site over the past week

Brands are a messy, fuzzy combination of multiple conflicting ideas, and best viewed from a distance, according to a series of essays from leading strategists, thinkers and planners that have been running on the Contagious site over the past week.

John V. Willshire set up the debate's premise in his piece arguing for the idea of a gloriously broad brand, suggesting that brands should engage in dialogic conversations - where no one right answer or conclusion is sought out. Willshire writes: 'The word "brand" has many meanings, interpretations, rules and principles, many of them at cross-purposes with each other.'

Author Mark Earls agrees, in his piece on the benefits of messy brands: 'we need new kinds of models which allow for experimentation, ambiguity and even self-contradiction if appropriate.' Meanwhile, Marcus Wenner, strategy director at Prime PR, Stockholm, confirms in his piece Got Clout? that embracing a broad perspective is important: 'The starting point of building clout is an understanding of the bigger picture and knowing what current conversations to participate in and potentially influence.'

In Martin Weigel's response, Learning to Love Fuzziness, the head of planning at Wieden+Kennedy, Amsterdam, brings a realistic reminder to the conversation. Broad or narrow, 'people just don't work that hard at brand learning - because it's just not that important.' He disagrees that abandoning continuity is the right route to pursue, writing 'let's remember that the first imperative of branding is to make people's purchase decisions easy.' He adds: 'Connections between neurons in the brain (which is all that memories are) are only created when neurons fire repeatedly. Whether it's an advertising property, a brand property, a brand line, a point of view, an aesthetic... If you have continuity, you can be flexible, adapt, respond, and innovate.'

However, as Mark Earls adds, actions speak louder than words, for brands just as much as people. He explains, 'for me, doing is far more important than what the ads or the packaging should say. Indeed, for too long, marketing has been drifting away from its core function - orientating the whole organisation around what matters to the consumer - and become more about communication and spin and making the best of what the organisation wanted to do anyway.'

So what should be important to marketers? The need to maintain a sense of a brand that doesn't seek to tie things up too neatly, with membranes that are permeable for ideas and interactions to drift in and out of and that is also coherent. Brands must offer enough intrigue to produce good work that can build connections with people, increasing their likelihood to make a purchase. As BBH New York's chief strategy officer Sarah Watson argues in her piece, viewing brands from a distance allows us to gain a sense of perspective and understanding of the range of multiple dialogues that they encapsulate. 'The real question is whether the brand shorthands we work with contain a sufficiently nourishing narrative for those working with them to create something good,' she writes.

Marc Shillum, principal at design and experience agency Method, offered one potential solution, based on his work, in the article's comments: 'We can use patterns to connect the fuzzy moments to the absolute, and then use modal progression to move brands to a less definitive place, making them more relevant while maintaining coherence.'

Some brands do manage to maintain this kind of balance between coherence and breadth. Jed Hallam, head of social strategy at Mindshare, commented that he is impressed by brands such as Nike, Apple or Google, that 'have a single strand of "meaning", but multiple translations of that to different cultural groups - the point being that you can stand for a single thing, but you need to also understand how each of those cultures react to your "brand messaging".'

One thing is clear: the concept of what a brand is and how best to present it to today's rapid-fire multimedia world is as much up for debate as what any one individual brand can stand for and encapsulate. We'd love to hear your take on the debate and the resulting discussions. Can we pin down what a brand should be? Or, instead of searching for a definition, should we concentrate, as Phil Dearson, Tribal Worldwide's head of strategy, neatly commented, on brands with meaningful rather than having inherent qualities?