Brands are boring

And “social media” is a crock. Or perhaps an oxymoron.

Brands are boring because they’re not human. They’re companies. And, despite the recent Supreme Court decision to the contrary, companies are not human. They are abstractions that make business possible. Businesses are necessary to thriving economies and working civilizations. They are comprised of human beings and therefore have human qualities. But they are not themselves human.

The term “brand” was borrowed by from the cattle industry, and came into popular use during the golden age of network radio, in the 1930s and ’40s, when large suppliers to grocery and department stores (especially detergent and tobacco companies) won space in “shelf wars” by putting one  product in eight different packages and singing about the difference. Singing was a form of branding. You burned a song into consumers’ heads, so they had no choice but to recall it. “If you’ve got nothing to say, sing it,” the saying went.

Okay, hit it (in 3/4 time, and a Munich beer house spirit, flasks raised, singing loudly)…

Schaefer
Is the
One beer to have
When you’re having more than one.
Schaefer
Pleasure
Doesn’t fade
Even when your thirst is done.
The most rewarding flavor
In this man’s world
Is for people who are having fun.
Schaefer
Is the
One beer to have
When you’re having more than one.

I can’t help knowing that song because Schaefer burned it into the brains of baseball fans listening to Brooklyn Dodgers games. I know this one…

My beer is Rheingold the dry beer.
Think of Rheingold whenever you buy beer.
It’s not bitter, not sweet.
It’s the extra dry treat.
Won’t you buy extra dry Rheingold beer?

.. because Rheingold advertised during Giants games.

Piels and Ballantine had less memorable jingles, though I do remember “Bert and Harry Piels,” who were actually Bob & Ray, the most dry and ironic radio comedians who ever walked the earth.

In those days it made sense to brand, because there were so few media, and — actually — so few companies. If you wanted to make beer you needed a big industrial brewery.  The Industrial Age was one in which Industry was All.

This is no longer the case.

As for social media, all media now need to be social. Mediation is between humans, some of which are inside companies. Hence, “social media” as oxymoron. Sort of, anyway.

Meanwhile, lots of social media types are talking about brands and branding as if these were new and hip things. They’re not. They’re heavy and old. We need to move on, folks. Think of something human instead.

When a friend came back from SXSW recently, we talked about how, at the show, it was “social every fucking thing there is.” The term SEFTTI was thus coined.

We need to move past that too.

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39 comments

  1. Salpo’s avatar

    Reading your post it pop on my mind a de-motivational image I saw in motivatedphotos.com (here it is: http://www.motivatedphotos.com/?src=rss&id=76461)
    Brands are definitely boring, but the usage people are doing with them – such as displayed in that picture, where to wear branded clothes is considered uncool, instead of cool – is an interest twist in the history of branding. So much that, ironically, there are now brands that claims to be no-brands (as the paradoxical NoLogo®™)

  2. Jann Sabin’s avatar

    Brands are organic though in that they evolve as cultures. I think that’s the part that can be recognized as something more than abstractions that make business possible.

  3. Mike Warot’s avatar

    I think that we’re focused on services, instead of content. Instead of each of us bringing our best, we’re all bringing stuff we can pound out fast. I’m in agreement with Merlin Mann’s call to do things Better.

    We’re focused on services because of a very deep and hard to describe problem…

    The ends of the internet (our PCs) are insecure. We know this, and we’ve adjusted. We don’t host our own things, we pay a silo owner to do it for us. This is a big problem, because we’ve ceded too much control in the process. Everything we point to is in a silo somewhere. This has resulted in a war to own our stuff. Our stuff is being stolen from us.

    I think that the silo owners are winning the war, and we need to rethink our approach to this. We need to intentionally create and choose new base components to build a better web upon. These components need to be easy to manage, secure, and portable. The LAMP (Linux Apache MySql Php) stack is a good start, but it’s way to much stuff to be a reliable appliance.

    We need new bricks. We also need new ways to stack them. The focus on providing services instead of sharing content is distorting things in very non-productive ways. If we could all have our own way of doing things that is secure, and doesn’t rely on 24×7 internet connectivity to be useful, I believe it could really help.

    The creative commons offers a new brick. It offers a way to get around the copyright cops, and to legally share things, so that a copy isn’t a crime. If offers a way of saying what you expect when you share something in a machine readable way. This means we can make copies, and we don’t necessarily have to point to stuff, we can copy it instead. This is another step away from the need for a 24×7 internet connection.

    We need to be able to grow our own gardens, to curate our own museums of the best stuff out there. The way to do this is to have our own stuff.. not just pointers to it in the cloud.

    If we own it, we can freely share it. If we merely point to it, there can always be a toll gate installed once something becomes popular.

    I’ve spent some time trying to make this coherent… I hope it was.

  4. Ron Morrison’s avatar

    Yes brands in and of themselves are boring. It takes a catalyst, a point of discussion… alas a conversation to make then interesting. When humans talk about a brand only then between those humans and those that on the periphery hear/read the conversation bring any life or interest to the brand.

    Really what companies should strive for is not burning their brand into their markets’ brain but causing their market to discuss their brand. They should simply be interesting.

  5. Mark’s avatar

    I have to say this post struck a resonant chord in my marketing soul. I have been of the opinion that SM remains a tactic and that we as marketers and advertisers and communicators are not being strategic. Nor are we identifying why people learn about products or seek solutions. Malcolm Knowles identified that adults will learn when they have identified a problem and seek solutions. This is not 100% of the time but if you think about it we seek solutions (eg brands, products, services, etc) to solve problems.

    When that connection to a ‘brand’ is based on solving a problem the relationship is stronger and more durable. Think about “The one beer to having when you are having more then one” 20% of the beer drinkers drink 80% of the beer. Problem I want more then one. Solution my beer.

    I have taken a look at this issue; moving from brand-centric promotion in HC (pharma) to problem-centric promotion. Take a look at my first pass at this.

    http://tiny.cc/problem-centric

  6. Ian Falconer’s avatar

    Are brands boring ? Yes, on one level they probably are. They are just names on things designed to trigger visceral response.

    However your own response to the memory of the branded beer was fascinating. I could almost feel the sun on the back of my neck and smell the hotdogs. I know very little about you personally and nothing about the beer that you once drank, but your reaction to that brand paints a picture of your own memory that translates to a much higher density of information and empathic connection that if you had simply said “I remember when we used to drink beer at the baseball”.

    So I think that the brand may have a cultural relevance in storytelling and memory that transcends its market value in modifying immediate behaviour.

    I’ll give my own example;
    I was a really annoying pre-teen. Too bright for his own good. Really unpopular. Physically tiny. Still acting the 6-year old at 11. And the thing that I remember best about that time was my fight to own a pair of Nike sneakers. I screamed and shouted and cried and mithered until finally my parents capitulated. I got my new sneakers and they were great. It really mattered to me that they were a ‘cool’ brand and I felt a better person for owning them. A marketeers dream ! But nowadays I use that memory to remind myself that stuff is just stuff. I put my family through hell to get those shoes and they were in the trash a year later. For me now Nike is a brand that I associate with reassessing priorities, so it still has its use. I even buy their sneakers now and again, but usually because of a specific design queue rather than any loyalty to a graven image.

    Next time you are in the UK I thoroughly recommend the Robert Opie Collection (http://www.robertopiecollection.com), though I’ve never visited its London home.

  7. christopher carfi’s avatar

    ding ding f*cking ding. spot-on, as usual, doc.

    related, via @blogher: http://www.blogher.com/i-guess-what-im-trying-say-im-tired-feeling-intimidated-write-my-own-blog

    best pull quote: “”Blogging is a business! Build your brand! YOUR BRAAANNNNNDDDD!”

  8. Robert Rose’s avatar

    As usual Doc, you’ve got me to thinkin’

    So, I think you’ve actually got two blog posts here – and I’m only going to respond to the “Brands are boring” bit….

    I think I get where you’re headed (correct me if I’m wrong). We have to get beyond “brands” because brands aren’t human. And in today’s “media” saturated marketplace – it’s about connecting with a human rather than an “abstracted concept” (otherwise known as a business).

    And, here I’m not sure I agree…. Brands (or the activities of branding which is really what we’re talking about here) are changing yes – but I don’t agree that, as a concept, it’s dead…

    Branding surely started out from the livestock legacy – but its purpose (as it was then) is to differentiate the almost identical cattle and make it easier to discern ownership. And, the symbology itself of the brand became a copyright… The whole idea of a “registered brand” meant no other rancher could use that same combination of symbols… or logo if you will… For my 19th Birthday my dad bought me my own brand BARRR – Think Bar RR.

    Anyway… As Ian points out, this has evolved (if I can use that word) into marketers trying to align that differentiation with a cultural reference point (as they did with your waltzy beer jingle). Or, maybe even more pointedly, marketers now use “brand” to associate with a “differentiated experience” that they want you to associate with their product (the actual baseball game itself). To borrow Ian’s childhood for a moment – Nike wants us all to be cool athletes who “just do it”… Coke wants the world to feel “American” because we’re the “Real Thing”…. The concept may be boring.. but it is real and it does work.

    I think now with SEFTTI (and I love that btw) the need for “branding” (note the use of the gerund) couldn’t be greater. In today’s artificially flavored, technology saturated, noisy mediastorm – in order to differentiate, a marketer needs to now evolve his/her product’s alignment into a much deeper connection with the human experience… or blah blah blah… at least that’s the rationalization I’ve given myself for continuing in my profession

    So… are brands boring… Yeah, probably – most of them are… And most of them are “doing it wrong”….

    But branding – to me anyway – is fascinating…

    As always thanks for the great thinking….

  9. Frank Paynter’s avatar

    Great post, and it put me in mind of a regional brewery. Stevens Point Brewery in Stevens Point, Wisconsin sells quite a bit of beer. Following conventional marketing wisdom, they’ve done their best to develop different brands. But locally it doesn’t matter whether you order the “special lager,” the pale ale, the einbock, or the Oktoberfest–you’re simply drinking the stuff called Point Beer.

    In the 1960s, Schlitz, another Wisconsin brewery, advertised with a catchy jingle that observed, “When you’re out of Schlitz, you’re out of beer.” Students at Stevens Point State university quickly countered with the memorable line, “When you’re out of Point, you’re out of town.”

    [And in other Wisconsin beer news: Dick Leinenkugel, scion of the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewery fortune, resigned his appointed position as Wisconsin Secretary of Commerce and intends to run for the US Senate against Russ Feingold this fall. He'll run as a Republican, but he was appointed Commerce Secretary by Democrat Governor Jim Doyle.]

  10. christopher carfi’s avatar

    Frank, I once made a trip to Chippewa Falls, just to have Leinie’s at the source. It was sort of like a Midwestern pilgrimage (but, ya know, with hops and barley).

  11. Ian Falconer’s avatar

    I think that I was more trying to get across that ‘old and heavy’ can be good too as a way of grounding past experience and memories within a common frame of reference when societies are increasingly fragmented.

    The physical things that provide the cross over between cultures and generations are for the most part brands or branded items (of course there are non-physical commonalities too). What I’m saying is that the Coke bottle can also be the phrasebook for a foreign language. It doesn’t just have to be a sales device.

    As a Brit, words like ‘sneaker’ & ‘baseball’ have no cultural resonance for me, but they have currency as brand words for America, so they have communicative use in a cross-cultural setting. I’ll go one further.
    Remember the last time you went to a country that was way off the beaten track. How was communication with the locals established ? From my experience it’s first a check on language
    “Where you from ?” “England” “Ah ! English !”
    Then its a cultural reference
    “Manchester United ! Bobby Charlton ! David Beckham !” and you have established a line of communication. “No, no ! Manchester City ! Georgie Kinkladze ! Frannie Lee !”
    Now we can all have beer safe in the knowledge that we are all reasonable human beings with distorted views of the world and the importance of sports.

    What I’m saying is that brands can carry out the same role for our own memories. Thinking backwards can be like meeting a younger you. A different person with different priorities and values. Translating through time needs reference points as much as translating between languages and brand have a use there too as we navigate our own memories.

    So, yes maybe the execution of the brand as an overt demonstration of ownership or belonging is a tired notion, but having items that cross boundaries whether physical, cultural or temporal, will always have value.

  12. Mike Warot’s avatar

    Google doesn’t let you find things easily that don’t have a brand, or are off brand.

    HTML is a brand…. it is a specific way of building hypertext.

    HTML doesn’t live up to its brand promise, because it doesn’t actually let you mark up existing hypertext.

    If you realize this, and want find other ways of marking up hypertext, you really can’t do it in any really consistent manner using Google.

    This is true for pretty much any concept. Google doesn’t allow off brand messaging, and makes it very hard to find criticism or dissent. It’s not intentional, just a side effect of how keyword search works.

  13. Frank Paynter’s avatar

    Christopher, I remember one time in the early eighties when Beth and I drove home to Berkeley from a visit to Madison with a Nissan pick-up load of various Wisconsin brews. Had a beer tasting party. This was sorta tongue in cheek since we were more into wine, but our friends were most appreciative! My favorite beer was Heileman’s Old Style. Their brand differentiating claim was that the beer was “fully Kreusened,” whatever that means. I suppose I could Google it. But I do believe the beer would taste the same, with or without the branding.

  14. Mike Warot’s avatar

    Well… I had to know, so I did the requisite Google searches and came up with an informative howto article about Krausening Beer.

    Yes, the beer would taste the same with our without the brand, but not without the Krausening.

  15. Mike Warot’s avatar

    Ugh… can we get preview modem here in comment land, please?

  16. Mike Warot’s avatar

    Preview MODE…. not modem…. ugh!

    See what I mean?

  17. Ned’s avatar

    I think that the concept of branding *has* shifted from a command/control broadcast framework to the notion of the overall impression a consumer has of a product or service (as formed through a variety of interactions and touchpoints). Unfortunately, the concept hasn’t shifted among those who make a living off of branding. To touch on another point- taste is subjective, and brand (or disposition toward a given product) does, in fact, color consumer perception of taste. Which is why objective taste tests aren’t good market predictors in mass market food and beverage (hence the use of flavor profiles etc).

  18. Chip’s avatar

    Doc

    Coming from an opposite direction, working with local foods
    Current paradigm is that Dole wants you to buy their product, but not know where it’s sourced.
    We are looking at developing a “Regional Brand” of local sourced product, with participating growers doing “sub-brands” (their own farm).

    Eventually, we hope to be able to host videos “Hi, I’m farmer Brown, this is my dog, my family, and here’s my farm, where we grow…”
    This will tie to certification as to GAP (Good Agricultural Practices)

    The key is developing the “brand” as a trusted source.

    Other: we get Linie beer here, but also are developing some great local micro, and regional brews.

  19. Robert Bacal’s avatar

    I’m not a branding type guy, but the whole notion of social media being a swiss army knife for business and learning is so obviously overblown it’s sad. And for many reasons but not the least of which is that communication mediated by machine is not the same as when it’s not mediated by machines.

    and…contrary to what I call the hype and hope, you can”t protect a brand via social media. Social Media is an uncontrollable set of media, much like a hurricane. You know its there. You can’t do anything much about it but hunker down and do your best.

    The social media numbers are misinterpreted and when they aren’t reach is clearly much less — so it appears you can reach about 100x more people than you actually will.

    The new media isn’t “social” any more than walking down a crowded street is social. Communication is rather ineffective. And the costs of gaining followers/friends is high.

    We hear about the few successes but if you look at the hidden attrition rates for small business you will find each month thousands of them who have tried, given up and left. Silently.

    It’s weird to watch this.

  20. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Frank, et. al., The past, present and future of regional breweries and loyalties is an interesting topic in itself. Also the way some regionals that make good beer (e.g. Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams) have gone national. The sad fact about Rheingold, Pabst, Piels and other past makers of basic thin yellow beer is that there really was, I suspect, very little difference between them, beyond branding. Which means the Buds and Millers could come in and burn them out with bigger budgets, better advertising and a nearly identical product, inside the bottles and cans. I think the end of Top 40 radio, decline in radio listening to baseball, and the rise of cable TV (ESPN especially) also played a role. But the biggest change, I think, was the widespread realization that better beer could be made, and in much greater variety, without great cost, locally. People’s taste in beer changed, and in fact improved. Connoisseurship went downscale. Millions of ordinary beer drinkers in the U.S. discovered what the Irish knew all along: that dark beer is tastier. They also discovered what the Germans and Belgians knew all along: that lighter colored beers and ales could taste better too. Loyalty to giant old manuracturing-style breweries (e.g. Pabst in New Jersey, Ranier in Washington, Lucky in San Francisco) was totally undermined.

    I do recall my father saying that Ballantine, which differentiated by making ale rather than plain old beer, was better. I half-recall that he liked Ballantine in spite of the fact that they were the New York Yankees’ beer, but I may be projecting that.

  21. Katherine Warman Kern’s avatar

    I may even more negative about “branding” than you, Doc (if that’s possible).

    Yesterday’s Goldman Sachs hearings (4/27) helped me to articulate my instinct that, today, “Branding” is worse than BS or boring.

    Brands used to be a symbol of the hard work and integrity of the people who built a company.

    But as the Goldman Sachs hearings demonstrated on April 27th, the symbol has been used like a magician’s distraction.

    Goldman is a perfect example of today’s obsession with a brandname instead of the human integrity it symbolizes. I’ve posted about this here: http://www.comradity.com/comradity/2010/04/managing-risk-used-to-be-about-more-than-numbers.html

  22. thinkfeeldo’s avatar

    Personally, I’ve known that Branding was always doomed.

    It’s been slowly choking on it’s own bull for the past 20 years and now it’s all but over and Social Media is playing a huge part in bringing about its demise.

    In time, branding will dissolve; become less noticeable, less in your face and be replaced by something far more enticing, even more powerful.

    Parts of the new ‘branded’ future are already here. They just haven’t come together to form a whole. They’re still disparate.

    Naomi Klein was on the right path with No Logo. She was getting closer.

    The first to go will be the sales pitch. People are wising up to words and phrases like ‘new’, ‘the greatest’, ‘most amazing’, ‘one of a kind’, ‘last chance’ etc.

    People are over the hype. The bombardment of sales messages is killing any sense of newness. Today things are new…… for about……that long.

    There’s also the brand nightmare: when a company stuffs up BIG TIME like BP and all of a sudden their brand motif goes from a forward thinking and progressive ‘Beyond Petroleum’ to a highly toxic brand killer – ‘Biggest Polluter’. In a very short time (which seems like a lifetime for the unfortunate company) a brand can be crushed by the new global brand police – the global audience of hyper-connected netizens and mobilites (mow-bil-ites).

    Beyond the issues of branding, the real problem is that 99% of all the branded stuff in the world is cheap crap. In fact, we’re manufacturing ourselves to death!

    On a recent overseas trip I noticed how many more (of the same but different) shoe shops, accessories shops, clothing shops, eye wear shops, pharmacies, grocery stores etc etc existed and yet all of them were selling different brands! Even newsagents are full to the brim of magazine brands all trying to appeal to the individual in each of us.

    Go to a clothing outlet, look at how many different styles there are. It’s outta control.

    Franchising is also to blame. The homogenization of the shopping experience is coming to an end and individualism is back.

    Think of it as the New 60′s, only people won’t need to let their hair grow long or walk around in bare feet, or carry placards and march the streets demanding change.

    The new world of hyper-connectivity is bringing branding to its knees.

    And as much as I’d like to, I’m not going to give the game away right here and now and tell you what’s coming up next or what kind of branding will take shape in the near future. I’ll leave that for you to think about.

    TFD

    PS. Ron Morrison is on the ball.

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