We’re surrounded by brands. They are so ubiquitous that we rarely stop to question why they exist in the first place. What are they here for? Are they here to provide a veneer of acceptability to capitalist enterprise? Are they the product of mass media? Are they a vehicle for the manipulation of people in society? Are they an inevitable manifestation of the human condition?
It’s difficult to judge what makes a brand great without a clear point of view on what role they are supposed to fulfil in the first place. If we view them as oil in the cogs of capitalism, then value creation is the ultimate measure of greatness. But if we believe they play a greater role than mere profit generation, then we need a more ambitious set of standards.
So why do brands exist? Let’s go back to the beginning. Right back to the earliest recorded civilisations. The year is around 2300 BCE and we’re in the Indus valley. Merchants in the ancient city of Harappa use distinctive seals to demarcate their goods. These seals perform a clear functional role: to convey the identity of the sender of merchandise – they represent a mark of origin. A guarantee of quality. But the seals also contain symbolic value: some contain totemic animals like unicorns and antelopes; some are some show deities like the God Shiva, who was venerated for fertility and hunting prowess. It’s difficult not to interpret these as the earliest known example of brands. They existed in the oldest known civilisation and they have existed in various forms ever since. Along with cooking, sport, folklore, language and superstition, brands are human universals. They are a chronic aspect of humanity.
In the 5th Century BCE, the Greek philosopher-poet Xenophanes of Colophon noticed the tendency of different civilisation to create gods in their own image: Greek gods looked like Greeks, African gods looked liked Africans, and so on. In doing so, he identified a general human tendency to conceive of the world in human terms: anthropomorphisation. We do this from childhood with our teddy bears when we talk to them and pour them tea. We anthromorphise our pets when we make them a part of our family. When Financial Times journalists write about equities suffering in a crash they are also succumbing to our unconscious compulsion to ascribe human qualities to non-human entities. And this compulsion is central to understanding why brands exist and what makes a brand great.
Brands exist because people can’t help but think about organisations in human terms. That’s why so much of the language of branding is anthropomorphic: we talk about brand loyalty, brand personality, brand intimacy and even brand desire and brand love. We can measure the extent to which people perceive a brand to be fun or serious, calculating or caring, old-fashioned or optimistic. If you buy the idea that brands exist because people anthropomorphise organisations, then this has fundamental implications for how you define greatness.
I’ve been a brand consultant for twenty years and have spent much of that time beating the same drum that the likes of Byron Sharp still continue to bang: that great brands are the product of consistency, repetition and consensus. Consistency dictates that every interaction a person has with a brand should be designed to a strict and fixed set of guidelines, in order to create a clear expectation of the next interaction. Repetition involves the building of ‘distinctive memory structures’ in people’s minds through the repeated use of logo, colour and message. Consensus means that everybody in an organisation aligns around the same elevator pitch and conforms to the same set of prescribed behaviours. For decades, this is how brand marketers have defined greatness – and many still do.
The problem with this approach is it promotes an extremely mechanistic, rules-based approach to brand management. Rather than resulting in great brands, it undermines the fundamental role of any brand: to humanise an organisation so that people can connect to it emotionally. Imagine if a person always repeated the same catchphrase, always wore the same outfit and always behaved in accordance with a fixed set of guidelines. We wouldn’t call that person great. We’d call that person a sociopath.
The anthropomorphic brand champions coherence over consistency. We tend to anthropomorphise things that are unpredictable. The brand experiences we love the most aren’t those that we can predict; they are the experiences that surprise us. The brands we are most drawn to aren’t those that deliver uniformly across markets and channels; they are the brands we can’t take our eyes off because we don’t know what they are going to do next. It’s important to say that this is not to suggest that brands should deliver random or chaotic experiences: if something becomes so unpredictable that it is considered to be random, then we are less likely to anthropmoprhise it. But a little bit of unpredictability is a good thing.
The anthropomorphic brand eschews repetition of logo, colour and messaging in favour of interpretation and re-interpretation. This is what stops brands from going stale. It makes them interesting to watch. That’s why we love Absolut vodka’s limited-edition labels. It’s why we love Lego. Great brands don’t just deliver on expectations; they play with those expectations. They inspire us to see more of life’s infinite possibilities. They make the world more colourful and interesting and beautiful. They certainly don’t nag at us with the same brand logo, brand colour and brand message over and over and over and over and over again.
The anthropomorphic brand encourages challenge rather than building consensus. They don’t hand their employees a script to regurgitate. They don’t issue long lists of do’s and don’ts. They encourage the people who work for them to improvise around a theme. They challenge people to decide for themselves how best to apply organisational values to their work. They place as much emphasis on what is flexible in their brand guidelines as they do to what is fixed.
This is how you make a brand more human: make the interactions people have with it coherent but not uniform; give people space to find their own meaning in those interactions; and challenge people to question that meaning and evolve it over time. Not only does this result in more compelling brands, it’s also far more fun.