This is just a sneak peek from Morten’s feature in SCENARIO 5:2011. If you are not a current subscriber to SCENARIO or a member of The Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies, then subscribe or get in touch with us here.
Branding is the lazy, incompetent manufacturers’ revenge upon those more capable. Their brilliant move was to shift the field of battle from the real to something secondary. That is why we now compete on words and symbols rather than on substance. Read about why branding is wasted money, wrapped in promises of progress.
The idea of branding has journeyed from the mercantile world into the intimate sphere and the political-cultural public sphere. In its wake, differentiated indifference has spread. Wherever branding has been used in an attempt to create variety and renewal, we have instead received more of the same, and this phenomenon has turned out to be self-reinforcing. Branding is used as a solution, but in reality exacerbates the problem because it doesn’t create real differences, only apparent differences. This, again, creates a further need for differentiation, and this means the snowball starts rolling. Downhill.
In this article, I explain why the otherwise much-lauded and widely used branding phenomenon isn’t a solution to anything, but rather a problem for our society and our need for progress. But let us first take a look at what branding really is.
Branding = speculation
Branding has become such an overwhelming a success that it has become cool to be against it. It’s not difficult to rally people around the viewpoint that brandinghas got out of hand – everybody seems to be branding themselves and that advertisements creep in everywhere. However, the thing is that most people don’t quite realise what branding really is about, a fact that often turns any opposition into a fight against the big brands and their ubiquitous presence. Just think of the Canadian organisation AdBusters. People commonly equate branding with marketing, which directs the focus to communication between buyer and seller and naturally the element of acclamation.
However, this is wrong. If you reduce branding to simply being “leading to market”, like leading a cow to an agricultural show to parade it and then sell it, you miss an important point. Branding isn’t a matter of communication, but of speculation. It is crucial to understand this – precisely as it is crucial to distinguish between branding and its auxiliary disciplines, such as PR and advertising. These are quite different matters. In my opinion, the latter are honest disciplines, because what good is it that somebody is offering us the world’s best product if we are never aware of its existence? Not a lot. It’s not a problem to promote yourself – the problem arises when you stop trusting in your product. Here, branding is an effort aimed at hiding that you don’t have or can’t offer anything better than everybody else, and it is mainly there to hide the fact that you are just as impotent as (or no more potent than) everybody else around you. It is a smokescreen. It is giving up.
In mercantile lingo, this impotence is called a generic product situation. Generic products will be familiar to most people who have paid for things they actually need. Electricity is one example; mineral water another. There may be minor quantitative or content-based differences between different makes of these two generic products, but in the big picture it doesn’t matter much whether we choose one make over another. Both will solve our problems – and this is where branding comes into the picture. How else can manufacturers sell more of their products, if all the other makes are pretty much identical?
In the privatised capitalism model, there are – in principle – two ways to compete with other manufacturers or producers (if we discount illegal cartelisation where competing actors divide the market between them). You can 1) compete on price or 2) compete on quality, and the latter has the very favourable effect that somebody will develop something that actually is better than what the others are offering. This gives rise to questions about who has the best product, who can deliver it at the best price and who is best and cheapest? This constitutes healthy competition, which is the logic behind all progress in recent history.
However, competition on quality is difficult and requires you to make an effort and dare something new. It isn’t the easiest path, especially not for the impotent manufacturer. Nor can a company be particularly interested in competing on price, since this primarily favours the consumers and the two or three manufacturers that actually are cheapest. Numbers four, five and six will ultimately lose money. Neither way is particularly attractive, and it is here that branding offers a third possible alternative. The implications are complex, but the principle is simple. Branding is a matter of recognising that you don’t have anything special to offer, so you must create a strong, immaterial universe instead. This universe is your new product, and you should look at the old one as a by-product – something secondary, an accessory.
There are countless examples of companies having success with this approach, and these heroes of the business world are used as prime examples in the many long books written about branding over the last few decades. There’s a lot of money to be made from describing and teaching the philosophy of branding, because it works. Often, there’s no difference between products in a given category, yet we still pay too much for a number of these generics when we shop. The difference is ”hot air” – beautifully ornamented vapour, some of which is so expensive that it resembles idiocy to any rational thinker. But the companies behind these measures are laughing all the way to the bank – branding is the best idea anybody has ever presented them with.