Brian Creath

Brands Are Dead. (Really?) Part Two, in an apparent series.

In Brand, Marketing, Positioning, Strategy on April 14, 2009 at 2:28 pm


You may want to read my last post before you begin this one.

A short summation: Jonathan Salem Baskin, who wrote, “Branding Only Works On Cattle,” argues that “Brands Are Dead.” Says Baskin: “Nobody carries brands around in their heads. Nobody has a relationship with a brand. Or lives a brand lifestyle. Brands aren’t conversations, and they’re not bought, possessed, or coveted. Companies don’t own them. Neither do consumers or shareholders.” I, in turn, argue that far from dead, brands — true brands — are about to make a strong comeback.

Since then, Mr. Baskin has responded to my post. Here are just a few of his comments:

“Branding is the active, ongoing, real-time, reality give-and-take between producers and consumers. Very little of it relies on, or is the product of, the creative imaginations of branding folks, no matter how digitally brilliant they might be.”

How can one argue that brands are dead and then provide a treatise on branding? “Branding is the active, ongoing, real-time, reality give-and-take between producers and consumers?” No, Mr. Baskin, that’s called commerce. “Digitally brilliant?” That’s just weird.

But I do admire the all-or-nothing hyperbole: “Brands Are Dead.” I’ll give Mr. Baskin an A+ for shock value and a D+ for substance. Says he, “Don’t confuse recognition of logos or names with those artifacts possessing any established or lasting value. Brand is behavior, not thought or intent.” I didn’t know that I was arguing against these points, but now that you bring them up, you’re wrong. Again, this is not a consumer-only proposition — as you state yourself, there is a “give-and-take between producers and consumers.” For a customer, a true brand is an artificial proxy for the expected successful replication of a real experience; for prospective customers, a brand acts as the expectation for that same successful real experience. That’s what human beings do: they invent labels, words and visuals to describe experiences, feelings and thoughts. The dictionary is full of examples.

By the way, brand isn’t behavior — BEHAVIOR is behavior. It’s a perfectly good word to describe an understood concept. But I know, you can sell more books if you invent your own, confused terminology.

Mr. Baskin goes on, “Brian, thanks for your comments, and I encourage you to read my book. I think you’ve got things a bit backwards, and more than slightly out-of-touch with reality, but I understand why. After all, it’s tradition.” It’s tradition for me to get things backwards? Jonathan, I read your 693-word post “Brands Are Dead,” in which you twisted terms and confused issues to invent your point. And then summed your diatribe with: “I don’t presume to have the answer.” If this is digital brilliance, I want nothing to do with it. But as long as we’re trading offers, I would encourage your clients to engage my firm, Cohesion. (I’m quite sure they could use the guidance.)

My friend continues, “Brands ARE verbs, not nouns, and all of your static words describing the creative fantasies of the branding establishment — positioning, things that are ‘built,’ and that ‘stand’ for things — are the reverse of what’s true.” Really? “Brands ARE verbs, not nouns?” As in, “I McDonald-ed yesterday, how about you?” Yes, my static words could never hope to keep pace with Mr. Baskin’s fluid and connected argument. But who am I? A man with a creative fantasy; a simple soldier in the “branding establishment.”

But I do know this: You can’t brand a brand. You can position it. You can advertise it. You can publicize it. You can even promote it. But ‘brand’ is a noun, not a verb. It is the essence of a company, a product, a service — a shortcut path to all of the emotional and logical benefits a thing possesses.

While I’m working on my next post, I hope you’ll read about how Cohesion helps organizations build stronger messaging to increase consistency, lower cost and drive growth, here.

  1. My, you two are going at it! So I’ll just state that my bias is that brands aren’t dead. Not only do they exist and are created routinely as objects/symbols of psychological and physical satisfaction, but because of their revenue generation, they have become currency and assets. As the economy in the U.S. goes into its throes, in the retail sector for example, brand names like Sharper Image, Linens and Things, Bombay, no longer exist as “brick and mortar”, but as brands that are traded. BTW, these three were picked up for $175 million a couple of days ago. Just the brand names.

    It’s all advertising/visibility tonnage. It’s PR splash. It’s all about GRP’s, CPM’s, OTS’s [and by the way if you don’t know what these mean, then step out of the ring, please] placements, and a dash of creativity thrown in. It has nothing to do with whether the “symbol” of the emotional and psychologically residential thought we’re trying to plant is a banana, King Kong or some celebrity. It has to do with media. If I run a message with 2800 GRP’s, with at least 17-20 OTS, the audience will do what I want them to do, assuming my message has some personal/emotional resonance. I am an old advertising guy, and I came from a line of advertising people so I’ll bet you can recall most of what was branded even 40-50 years ago by my father and others of his generation. If one creative guy has an idea that tests better than the idea from the other guy, I’ll go with that and save money that I’d otherwise waste on lack of recall. But give me media tonnage and I’ll give you a Roman Column for your living room that you can’t live without.

  2. Okay Brian, I’ll bite. Here’s where you get caught:

    “a true brand is an artificial proxy for the expected successful replication of a real experience;”

    What Jonathan and others argue (sorry Jonathan, if I’m putting words in your mouth) is that artificial proxy no longer cuts it. It’s the real McCoy that anyone cares about: what’s the product like, what’s the customer service like, what do other people say about it.

    To think that we marketers can keep creating artificial edifices instead of real experiences is what will get us (and brands) in trouble. Brands still exist, but they’re more Descartes (to do is to be) than Sartre (to be is to do) or Sinatra (dobe dobe do).

  3. Rich,

    Thanks for your comment. Caught? I’m not suggesting that the real experience doesn’t exist (wouldn’t that be silly), nor that we should go around creating artificial experiences (never said that; there’s no such thing). I’m simply saying that to those not experiencing a specific event/experience, brands provide a great method of describing what that experience might be like, and if they’ve experienced it in the past, what it might be like again. The actual experience, can of course, only ‘be’ experienced in person. That doesn’t prohibit companies and people from talking about them in the abstract, however.

    If I’ve never tasted water and ask you to describe it, you might say it’s ‘cold and wet.’ While your words will never replace the actual ‘cold and wet’ I will experience, the words and your description do help me frame what the experience might be like. This is what I mean by artificial (a positive thing).

    Thanks again for the comment.


  4. In fairness to Baskin, I have not read his book, but if his Business Pundit screed is a microcosm of his greater work, “Branding Only Works on Cattle,” for all of its academic research and intellectual argument, I won’t be rushing out to Borders anytime soon. Borders, incidentally, is the brick-and-mortar bookseller with whom I have the fondest experiential relationship.

    No. Because for every radical in history who has ever wanted to usher in a new paradigm, for every soul searcher who has sought to dispense with tradition and leave a revolutionary legacy, for every good rebel — there are a hundred fools.

    ¡Viva las marcas!

    (Long live brands!)

  5. The world is divided between two types of people. Here is a quote that separates the groups: “Live like an artist with a heart full of respect rather than conquest.” – Barbara Scher

    This statement separates Creath from Baskin. It also separates a company that establishes positive brand values (long-term focus) from a company that lives solely by the numbers (short-term focus). “Artists” are concerned with engaging others through communication and “Conquistadors” are mercenaries. Mercenaries don’t trust brands because brands produce intermediate outcomes, that is to say that they don’t appear to directly affect cash flow drivers.

    The confusion that surrounds the definition of the word “brand” is vexing. I first heard this succinct definition of a brand from MathMarketing: “A brand is a promise of future value.”

    And Michael makes a great point: Brands generate profits. A brand is an intangible asset – adding financial value to a company. Roy Young says this in “Markeing Champions”: “Skillful brand building generates a particular final result: a customer’s willingness to choose that brand over competitors’ offerings, even if doing so means paying a premium price….While brands don’t appear on the balance sheet because of standard accounting practices, most business leaders today understand how the brand is an [intangible] asset that produces real – tangible – returns.”

    From Joe Marchese, reviewing “The Brand Bubble: The Looming Crisis in Brand Value and How to Avoid It” Oct 2008:

    “…while key brand metrics (consumers’ opinions of the value of a brand) have been steadily decreasing, corporations have continued to see an increase in the total value attributed to brand (investors’ opinions of the value of a brand). The implications are significant, to the tune of trillions of dollars in market wealth.

    …consumers have become increasingly picky about brands they will be loyal to. Gerzema and Lebar argue that consumers don’t simply look at the current or past state of a brand, but are aware of a brand’s direction and ‘energy.’ The best way to think about this, they say, is that consumers ‘now select brands based on the same principles investors use to select stocks.’

    …What I truly loved about the book is its systematic demonstration of the enormous and increasing percentage of value that is attributed to brand.” – Joe Marchese

    Mr. Baskin,
    -intangible things aren’t entirely controllable
    -mercenaries fear what they cannot control
    -fearful people lash out at things they don’t understand

    Those who lack the intangible creative talent that gives brands a “cool factor” want to deny it and bash it. Bash away, but there will always be creative muses who inexplicably prove you wrong and consumers who will continue to make decisions based upon “a brand’s direction and energy.”

  6. Brian, Jonathan and commenters, all. Can I just say that it is rare to have such an in-depth and erudite examination of this whole area.

    Brands are, of course, not dead. They are useful labels to attach to otherwise apparently indistinguishable products and services. The irony here is that the word ‘brand’ is also a label for something that means different things to different people. Most of us agree with Brian’s meaning; not many, I would suggest, side with Jonathan. But then he is selling a book, whereas Brian is offering his excellent commentary for free. Perhaps that’s all you need to know.

  7. […] read the two posts that sparked this dialog, “Brands Are Dead, (Really?)” and “Brands Are Dead. (Really?) Part 2.” While discussion on this topic is far from over, I did want to post an update on a few of […]

  8. Bravo, Brian. I agree with your take on this matter, and not just because I know you. We all know that certain brands can be trusted and are, therefore, still ALIVE! i.e. Disney, Coca-Cola, Apple to name a few. If I see Apple on a product, I already know it’s going to be a good product and worth the money. That is the brand working ahead of the product. That is the expectation of the “successful replication of a real experience”.

    I eagerly await Part Three…

  9. […] closes with a plug for Jonathan Salem Baskin (see my posts regarding his points of view, here, here and here) and a call to not use the ‘tainted language of branding’ to save the Earth. […]

  10. This is very funny. I reviewed his book poorly on Amazon and he has sent me three emails to argue with me. Two of which were kind of angry. Brands aren’t dead. By the way one of his emails was from an iPhone. I wonder if he waited in line.

  11. Re: “Branding is the active, ongoing, real-time, reality give-and-take between producers and consumers. Very little of it relies on, […], the creative imaginations of branding folks […].”

    As I’ve said in an earlier post, two words: Barack Obama. Tell me that BO’s image was not a creation of “branding folks.” Even most of those who voted for him (including “Newsweek” and Tom Brokaw!) admitted that they knew little of him. There was little substance, little “give-and-take” between the producer (BHO) and the consumers (voters). Branding was every-thing!

  12. […] current marketing ills. (More on true brands can be found at Brian Creath’s blog, The Idea, here and […]

  13. […] evolution and growth. (More on true brands can be found at Brian Creath’s blog, The Idea, here and […]

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