Excuse Me, Your Brand Is Burning

[September 3, 2010]

It’s no surprise that the topic of branding is an ongoing obsession for American businesses of any size and shape. As a one-way, no-frills trip to Alltop can tell you, there seem to be a fair number of people who’d much rather talk about branding than actually talk to their customers. To that extent, they’re a lot like some politicians or radio personalities who pour a lot more effort into building a better megaphone than in having something coherent to say.

Not that there’s anything wrong with tinkering with the mechanics of a discipline or using an intellectual apparatus to help fine-tune your perception of the issues. But kept up indefinitely, its productive value slides down to zero. As far as I can see, the only people who profit from a constant crisis of thought or consciousness are cult leaders. “More work is desperately needed, to stem the tide of [insert ideological bogeyman here].”

At some point, that is, you need to stop talking and actually say something. 

Which came first, the icon or the iconic?
Of course, at a superficial level, branding is just an icon, in the broadest sense, that engages our shared vocabulary of cultural symbols. Even if, for instance, Lightbulb Ideas, LTD didn’t go for the obvious in its logo, the sense of burgeoning creative productivity comes across fairly well. You could say the company name and this magic wand imagery give the company two hooks into our consciousness. 

But before anyone cries “mixed metaphor,” remember, an icon is just a starting point. This company—whatever it is—is by all appearances just starting up, as of 9-3-10. Should they produce a fabulous product or steer CEOs to fantastical profits through consulting wizardry, who’ll care that their icon is one part Edison, one part Harry Potter and one part popcorn popper?

I’m symbolizin’ it.
In a related sense, while the “I’m Loving It” campaign has given McDonald’s a slightly more contemporary voice on paper, my impression of its value is far more shaped by the condition of its washrooms than this latter day variant of “Singing in the Rain.” For my money, the globe spanning restauranteur rapide would get far more value from holding its franchise owners to higher standards of cleanliness. After all, what reason do I have to believe the kitchen’s any cleaner?

So in this instance, “branding” of a less abstract variety would be far more motivating and maybe even cheaper than the 60 second spots I’ve had to endure for decades now. Of course, the joke’s on me, since Ronald McDonald has the last laugh in terms of sales. Here again, however, this positive outcome has much more to do with the appeal of its actual product than its clever merger of The Golden Arches from the 1950s with Mr. Smiley Face from the 1960s.

Millions of people like Chicken McNuggets, end of story. And according to any meaningful definition of branding, the McDonald’s brand is the promise of delivering a predictable fat, salt, slurp, crunch and sugar buzz—”healthy salads” not withstanding. 

Mr. Vader? It’s your mom on Line 2.
What? No, I will not take a message.
That’s why, the longer I hang out in this industry, the more convinced I am that ad agencies should spend more time advising brands to deliver a valid product—and less time teaching them to whistle a happy tune. 

You want to sell more, want better press? Instead of asking us what shade of lipstick would bring out your pig’s eyes, how about dropping the arrogant posture, actually honoring your legal commitments and, excuse me, prepping your CEO’s compensation package for bariatric surgery? Do that and then we might have something to sell. Fact is, for example, no one will believe BP is destined to get “Beyond Petroleum” if it can’t get beyond its callous disregard for human lives or, for that matter, the future of life on this planet.

In this context, then, what does “branding” matter? I mean, we all love a paycheck, but if I’m going to earn my pay, my best advice to companies like BP or AIG, etc., etc. is “Clean up your act.” Trust me on this, running an honest business will do a lot more for your brand than 19 rounds of changes on your logo font or mission statement could ever hope to.

But if, in the end, the advertising industry’s only raison d’être is to make the social crimes of major corporations more palatable, it’s time we took a closer look at our own brand—and stopped wagging our tongues about “retooling for an era when consumers demand and get more control over the brand narrative.”


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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