Beyond Brand Semantics

by Chris Kenton on March 29, 2005

I took the rant on marketing semantics to my Business Week column today. I never imagined such a seemingly simple issue would have such legs, but the resistance I’ve gotten from some quarters–dismissiveness, anger, derision–is unusual. There are a lot of marketers out there who don’t want the boat rocked.

But the struggle over the meaning of Brand is only scratching the surface. There are many concepts in marketing that are equally vague or confused, or conveniently reinterpreted to fit each marketer’s understanding or expertise. Depending on who you’re talking to, Segmentation can mean either market segmentation or segmented pricing. Positioning can refer to a competitive market strategy, a marcom messaging strategy, or even brand image.

In a conversation, the multiple meanings of a word are usually stabiliized by context. If I say "grab the wheel", and we’re sitting in a car, you’ll know I mean the steering wheel. If we’re outside the car changing a flat, you’ll know I mean the tire. Using context, experience and inflection to determine what meaning of the word was intended doesn’t change the meaning of a concrete thing. A tire is still a tire, and a steering wheel is still a steering wheel. But what happens when the word is referring to something that is no more solid than an *idea*? What happens to the idea of segmentation, or positioning, or brand, when, through my own channels of experience–through context, inflection, etc–I interpret the meaning in a way that is different? What happens when I downright confuse one meaning with another, and then transmit that confused meaning to someone else?

In an age of Information, when we make our living as Knowledge Workers, what happens is that we fill our universe with static. Knowledge is shared through the use of language, and if the language isn’t sufficiently clear, it’s like we’re talking to each other over a bad connection. In the short run, it’s merely annoying–your clients or colleagues don’t fully understand what you’re saying. But in the long run it’s destructive. People who are not marketers, but who depend on interacting effectively with marketers, begin to lose confidence in the value of marketing because every conversation is slightly vague, slightly confusing–and more troubling still, the meanings of important concepts seem to change from person to person. That lack of clarity and credibility has become the brand image of marketing, and until we get clear in our communication, we stand little chance of improving it.

If you’re coming in from BusinessWeek, welcome. I’d really like to get more of a dialog going than a rant, so please drop a comment, if you would. Thanks for reading.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Sage Osterfeld March 29, 2005 at 6:49 pm

Hallelujah, lord be praised, now pass the ammo.

After years of cleaning up the messes of sloppy marketers who’ve convinced their client that a “brand” is some esoteric intangible that needs a bunch of geeks in black turtlenecks and funky glasses to make real, at last there’s someone else who gets it.

A “brand” — as my Idaho neighbors would say — “is that thing stamped on that steer’s ass that shows everyone else it belongs to me.”

Same thing here in the big city folks. A brand says “this is a product of my company.” Nothing less nothing more. And if that product sucks, the brand is associated with a sucky product. No amount of fancy, expensive, wishy-washy, feel good “branding” can — or ever will — fix that.

Paulo Duarte March 31, 2005 at 6:46 am

Is things could be so simple…

The reality is far more complex and multiple meanings only reflect the complexity of things.

Did you understand what I mean or is too complex?

Chris Herbert April 2, 2005 at 3:41 pm

Brand-biguity?

Jason Kerr April 3, 2005 at 12:52 am

I thought I had an anchor.

I thought I had an anchor.
It was heavy, it was big.
It was plenty heft o’ paperweight for holdin’ still m’rig.

And then a stormy gale arose
And made me for a dope.
I pulled my trusty anchorline and found
a fray of rope.

Well, Christopher, I intuitively agree with you that a brand is what it is. A taxonomic anchor.
But which one? You said it’s “your name, your logo, your trade dress..” Well, which is it?

Here’s my attempt at a conversation (only mildly ranty):
http://jasonkerr.typepad.com/brandlessmarketing/2005/04/brand_is_a_bran.html

Freddy April 5, 2005 at 1:26 pm

Thank you for your refreshing comments.

I’m a marketer myself. New to the business. Barely two years in. But even I, a naive 25 year old, can see how far up its own backside this industry has gone. I came to marketing full of hope that it would offer a combination of creativity and practicality, of free thinking rooted in a clear understanding of shared principles. The reality is that it’s caught a chronic case of The Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome.

All too often confused definitions are used as an excuse for lazy thinking. Or worse, for egos to indulge in self-important pseudo philosophising and self-aggrandisement: ‘love me, love me, read me, read me.’ And so we have yet another unoriginal tome re-hashing the concept of ‘brand’ because the writer’s not original enough to grapple with a truly revolutionary idea, but is cocky enough to think we want to read their confused cant. What twaddle.

Let’s be honest. We’re creative, but we’re not gods. Let’s stop shrouding ourselves in this cloak of obfuscation and ‘oh no, you couldn’t possibly understand how we do this. It’s magic.’ Let’s give clients some transparency. And let’s actually agree on what it is that we do. Then maybe at last I can be proud to say I work in marketing.

Chris April 5, 2005 at 6:36 pm

I was having this same conversation with another blunt soul this week. We got to talking about our “conversion” stories. Here’s mine:

My moment of enlightenment came during the height of the dotcom boomb, working for a tech client that was growing too fast and scraping the bottom of the barrel for in-house marketing talent. I was presenting concepts to their marketing team, and some Hollywood dork in Flash Gordon glasses and polyester pants pops out of his chair saying “I want to see sexxxy. Where’s the sizzle?”

I have a license to shoot people like that now. They represent the death of our profession.

But take heart, there are more people like you out there, at all levels of the industry, and they’re starting to come out of the woodwork. Just keep talking straight and they’ll find you.

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