News & Views

Opinion / The Benefits of Messy Brands

by Contagious Contributor

Mark Earls joins the debate on dialectic vs. dialogic brands, arguing that companies with looser frameworks allow for experimentation and encourage action

Read John V. Willshire's original article here, and another response from Martin Weigel here

At the beginning of last month, in the hallowed halls of The Museum of Brands in Westbourne Grove, London, surrounded by ancient packs and collectible pre-war point of sale materials, I found myself - together with my old friend David Hackworthy of Fallon - leading the first module of the UK advertising industry's premier training course - the IPA Excellence Diploma. 

While the sun glared down outside, we spent two long, long days with 25 of adland's brightest and best young leaders (together with some fantastic external speakers like the Guardian's Zoe Williams, Syco's Charles Garland and This Fluid World's Jon MacDonald) exploring the central question: "what is a brand?". 

As a result of this experience, many of the issues that John Willshire's great piece raises are fresh in my mind. However, before I give my own take on brands and branding today, let me give you a flavour of the conversations we stimulated over those two days.

From the very first morning of the course, we sought to challenge some of the loose assumptions that swirl around in marketing and advertising about brands and branding: we asked participants to explore how many different ways the brand idea is used - from brand strategy to brand personality, brand values to brand personality, brand "me" to brand "onion", brand insight to brand tarot (yes, indeed). As we spoke, more and more examples tumbled out on cue to show quite how slippery and self-propagating the idea is and how easy it is to talk at cross purposes - and to assume that things are quite otherwise.

As if to emphasise this point, we then played an old deprivation game of mine: we insisted that for the remainder of the session, should we feel the need to use a b-word, we replace b**** with the similar sounding "bnard" (named after my old German teacher, as it happens) and then explain precisely (in longhand, if you like) what we mean by it. 

Now the degree of difficulty this posed for both delegates and us just served to underline the essential point that "brand" is a floppy, lazy concept in practice which renders many conversations and interactions essentially hollow - and happily so, given how much easier it is to pretend that we all know what we're talking about when we say "brand". 

But another aspect of the way we practitioners use the b-word also emerged almost as rapidly: control. "Brand-" is a suffix that embodies right and wrong, imperatives for action and avoidance, longer or shorter term benefit: we say something's on or off brand when it should or shouldn't be done; we have brand strategy (but rarely tactics) and seek to build brand (rarely product or service) equity. Brand is all about control or creating the sense or illusion of control (as many like John W would suggest) and singularity.

So what do I take away from this?

First and foremost: the simplicity and clarity that brand-talk seems to promise is an illusion - the messiness and multiplicity of the real world that John describes is hidden from us. What we need are more organic and multi-dimensional ways of thinking about brands - more along the lines of John Grant's Brand Molecule (described in The Brand Innovation Manifesto).

We need new kinds of models which allow for experimentation, ambiguity and even self-contradiction if appropriate (as the White Queen puts it in Through The Looking Glass, "six impossible things before breakfast"). The notion that people are or should be consistent in their actions and beliefs is largely wishful thinking and belongs more in the speculation of moral philosophers than the real world and so it is for brands.

We need models like those that John proposes that reflect the leaden structures of old-school architecture (please, enough already of brand pyramids and brand temples that propagate the illusion of clarity and singularity).

Second, that all this talk is just that: talk. It makes me think of Blackadder's Captain Darling and Colonel Melchett speculating wildly about the progress of the war, tucked up safely miles away from the frontline.

It ain't doing - it's not about the things a brand does that make it different or serve some higher purpose. 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. More about branding what comes out of the factory than guiding what goes on inside it.

Having a rather looser and more realistic framework for thinking about brands would perhaps encourage more doing - more proper innovation that created brand equity (whatever that is and however you choose to measure it) rather than just defending what we've got already.

Third, for me the most powerful brands are rooted in an understanding of purpose - a real commitment to changing the world in some way or other on behalf of the broader public. I've made the case for this repeatedly over the last decade so won't belabour the evidence here but the important thing is that if you're building a brand on beliefs about the broader world, you have to accept messiness and ambiguity: a. there are many possible beliefs to be had, b. there are many ways to deliver even just your purpose.

For all their great inventions - gunpowder, cookware, beer, paper, printing, and pasta, the Chinese were long thought to be mathematically missing something. What logicians call the law of the excluded middle - that something cannot be simultaneously both A and Not A - was long seen to be an omission of tremendous proportions. Maybe now, as Chinese brands start to flex their muscles, we might have to rethink - ambiguity and contradiction are inevitable in the real world. It's just we haven't wanted it, particularly in Western bnardland.

Mark Earls is the author of Herd: How to Change Mass Behaviour by Harnessing Our True Nature (2009), Welcome to the Creative Age (2002) and co-author of I'll Have What She's Having: Mapping Social Behaviour (2011). Earls honed his practical expertise in senior posts at advertising agencies Ogilvy and St Luke's.He is currently working on a new book on copying and originality. @herdmeister

Image: Museum of Brands