Does Your Brand Flex with the Flux?

[February 27, 2011]

Time was, the traditional definition of branding seemed irrefutable: A consistent, reliable presentation, conveying a consistent message about core values. It was a message delivered in a predictable, measured cadence. “You expect more from American [Oil Company], and you get it,” ran a typical tagline from those times. Only a few years ago, it still felt like a standard.

But lately, my opinion’s been shifting, now that the concepts of consistency and of identity themselves have become more fluid. Sure, there are still plenty of people who will answer the question “Who are you?” with their occupation, as if they drew their identity solely from their careers. But it’s a mechanical answer, held over from a time when the expression “permanent job” could be uttered without quite so much irony. In the emerging world order, people must adapt and re-adapt to an ever-changing menu of survival strategies.

You are what you watch.
And that’s just one way of many our identities fluctuate. We don’t stay married, we leave our hometowns, we get a “makeover,” or at least daydream about it, as we jump from one technology fad to another. And all the while, the entertainment industry keeps tempting us to try out a new state of being. One minute we identify with an alien race of blue giants, the next with a gaggle of misfit toys, next with sinister cadre of dream-invaders and next with a troop of sulky vampires trapped in an eternity of bad hair days.

In fact, when you add up the number of different personas Americans willingly emulate, whether embedded in film, pop-music, grass-roots political movements or their on-again-off-again embrace of religion, you might begin to wonder if we’re witnessing an epidemic of multiple personality disorder.

In light of this propensity for chameleonic identity-shifting, I have to wonder whether the static brand image is now as anachronistic as the word “anachronistic” itself. Maybe it’s time we learned a lesson from Eddie Murphy.

Empathy and observation.
Because, come to think of it, that’s when my branding belief-system started to quake—one Saturday afternoon, while watching Coming to America on DVD. No, I’m not talking about the creaky plot, the fairy tale evocation of post-colonial Africa, or the tired satire of American business ethics. I’m talking about the actor’s whole-hearted embrace of characterization. Murphy’s portrayals of several distinct characters grow from a careful observation of human nature.

Of course, those observations are trotted out for laughs in a highly stylized way. But rooted as they are in empathy—an uncanny ability to see himself in other people—Murphy’s personas are light-years away from the stiff, unyielding brand-characters presented by long-standing companies.

A Plasticine ethos from the Pleistocene era.
Take American Express, for example. In 2011, I have a hard time believing that the Centurion emblazoned on its products has any resonance for American consumers. At best it’s quietly ignored—except by a small minority of military historians, classicists and people with a rare form of factoid obsession who blog about digital marketing.

From that vantage point, it’s easy to see how limiting the mannequin gaze of traditional branding can be. In an era dominated by instantaneous communication, many brands take longer to open their mouths than most people have time to listen.

Embracing the flux.
How much better, perhaps, to offer a brand persona as variable and responsive to its immediate environment as is a brilliant character actor on a film set—or as people are in real life. After all, as you adopt different roles throughout the day, you never doubt you’re the same person. It doesn’t matter whether you’re slaving at work, taking your niece to see Never Say Never, or “Liking” the retweet of a Facebook comment on your BFF’s Flickr post. You never forget who you are.

My question is, why should a brand message that aspires to move you be any different? Why shouldn’t it be as variable, as adaptable as you are and based, ultimately, on empathy, the outgrowth of thoughtful observation?

Allowing a brand to take on a more fluid, variable persona, especially across different media or audience segments, need not alienate consumers. Quite the opposite. By embracing the flux, a brand will be more human, more believable and far less likely to get voted off the island—by the growing number of consumers who mutate with every tap of their touch screens.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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