Opinion

Good morning, Professor Brand!

10 March, 2017 Share socially

by John Corleto, FutureBrand Melbourne

Academic circles have begun suggesting that brands have a potent influence on the way we see the world, for better and for worse. They are not only markers of social status, but can expose unwritten cultural philosophies. They also actively shape new values; one only need think about the impact that Apple or Muji have had on our desire for simple, consistent experiences and understated visual design.

A broader toolkit

Arguably the concept brought to mind most readily when thinking about branding is positioning – who or what does my brand stand for in relation to the people that interact with it? These usually take the form of statements like 'To X audiences, we are Y' or 'We are the X that does Y'. This concept has justifiable longevity – it enables an organisation to constructively pit itself against competitors in saturated markets as well as allows it to maintain focus on the value it provides, and how to continually improve it.

But to a certain degree, it does fall a tad bit short in a world where brands have been accepted as being more than about a mark of ownership or a singular promise, a world where they are seen to have moral significance, where they have great impact on the way people view themselves and others. Basically, a world where brands have more responsibility – not just in a corporate or social responsibility sense, but in shaping users' lives as they understand it.

Deducing where ‘positioning’ falls short might be best solved by examining one of the phrases most uttered to describe it – ‘a unique place in the customer’s mind’. A customer may look at a shirt from a fast retailer and think, ‘This is trendy design at a reasonable price, allowing the masses to be at the forefront of fashion too’. But when customers are bombarded with similar existential, self-referential claims and promises (even if indirectly), one can’t help but wonder whether positioning is enough of a lens for a brand to make the personal connection it partially exists to make. There’s a growing convergence in positionings – myriad brands claim to be democratisers – be it IKEA or Google. Positioning is a potent tool that we can’t do without. But there may be more we can add to it to give it greater relevance in a world where everyone shouts about themselves or what they provide.

Narrative tools are a means to create powerful brands – from archetypes, to elucidating a clear set of values (characterisation), creating meaningful conflicts identifying the antagonists and external forces that must be surmounted. 

At this point it’s worth taking a few steps back. Brands are often spoken of as the personification of an organisation. It might thus be useful to use this as an appropriate analogy. When people come across another individual with an engaging story, characteristics, a compelling appearance and an articulate way of expressing themselves, they don’t always become enamoured with that person for that person’s sake. More often than not, their thoughts stray towards a need to understand and adopt that person’s perspective or learnings, for the enrichment of their own life. That's why TED is so successful. The beauty in diversity is the ability to harness differing experiences to enrich our own perspectives. This could be a starting point for improving the way we create brands.

Brand as teacher

With this in mind, brands may consider that it may be best to shift their focus, not exclusively of course, but additionally, to the unique thing they can teach to enrich a customer’s life ­– because this may be far more memorable, valuable and enduring. 

The boldest brands are great mentors and their brand experiences serve the didactic purpose of reinforcing and imparting a central lesson. As they succeed, in ubiquity, longevity or building a user community they prove that their way of ‘living’ is worth learning. This isn’t a shift in semantics – it’s not a brand promise, proposition or purpose, and it’s not meant to replace these. A brand lesson is a brand’s way of ‘selflessly’ adding value by not talking about itself or what it can do, but what customers can take from it – rendering the brand that much more relevant to a person’s life, and making its impact a little bit more enduring that a commercial interaction. What if a brand’s impact could be for life? If that is a goal then it’s a lesson, not necessarily a promise, that we might have to impart. Here are some hypothetical examples:

Muji – A simpler, to an extent austere life, is more fulfilling than an extravagant one.

Airbnb – Real travel is about living like a local.

Apple – Technology is as much about treasuring humanity as it is about augmenting it.

School of Life – The arts and humanities are more relevant in our hyper-rational world than they have ever been.

Monocle – The true gentleman/gentlewoman is a well-informed one, on all facets of life.

Linkedin – Professional progression is as much about reaching out as it is about harnessing your own potential.

Like any good book, a powerful brand should have an enduring impact on the way one thinks, the way one lives. And in a world where consumers are subconsciously adopting brand messages as life philosophies, it might as well be our responsibility to be teaching them the right things.