Tim Rich: Branded with suspicion

The corporate branding industry is in need of an image overhaul to try to alleviate public scepticism of it. Tim Rich looks at the extent of this identity crisis

Here is a delicious irony: the ‘corporate branding’ brand is troubled. As I said in this column last month, when defending Wolff Olins’ work for Monday, sections of the media are ready to savage any new corporate identity, regardless of its character and quality. The public seems either suspicious of, or ambivalent toward, the practices of branding and identity. And many business leaders – the natural champions of any genuinely value-creating commercial activity – are either confused by or dismissive of the activity of corporate branding.

These are just my views, but the conclusions of BrandGap, a recent research project by the Design Council, branding consultant Citigate Lloyd Northover and research specialist Citigate DVL Smith (News, DW 18 July). The project’s research team collected the views of more than 100 experienced marketing and branding professionals on the subject of misunderstandings, mismanagements and misalignments in corporate branding. The comments the team recorded characterise corporate branding as a potentially valuabl

e activity beset by significant problems.

In a short paper outlining the findings, BrandGap is defined as ‘a failure to match strategic promise or ambition with the delivery, experience or comprehension of the brand’. The paper claims this disparity affects many companies and the very practice of corporate branding itself. It then examines three aspects of this in greater detail: the understanding gap, the performance gap and the boardroom gap.

None of this is likely to make Wally Olins or Lynn Upshaw choke on their Cheerios, but the research is obviously aimed at enlightening a broad business audience, not just experts. It should succeed. Its presentation of the findings is fresh and impressive. Its language – written and visual – is clear, engaging and accessible. Sophisticated points are raised; intelligent and grounded remedies proposed.

Indeed, language emerges as an important theme. For example, one respondent remarks: ‘What worsens the situation is when brand guardians or their consultants try to explain and use jargon, brand-speak or flannel. This is asking for it.’ I’m not sure what ‘it’ they are asking ‘for’, but ‘a dismissive response’ is one candidate. Clearly, clients can be forgiven for such a reaction if consultancies fail to describe what they do in clear, credible ways.

Another respondent says the key word in all this is infected with unattractive associations: ‘The word “brand” has a “brand” problem; people don’t like the word, it conjures up all sorts of superficial fmcg visions that corporate people don’t like for their companies It’s only when you use words like reputation or ethos or spirit… do you move forward.’

Perhaps corporate people are also allergic to the word brand because it is often accompanied by unsubstantiated claims for greatness. Many brand consultants suggest that brand is a holistic solution to every major business problem. Such hyperbole might stir the imagination of some, but will most definitely rouse the ire of others.

Another reason for negative reaction to the B-word must surely be that it has ceased to mean anything specific. Design consultancies are responsible for this. For example, I’ve noticed that many consultancies employ the words brand and identity as if they are interchangeable. They’re not. In brand design, an identity is a tangible mark expressing the ‘authenticity’ of something (an object, a space, a message). It is usually owned by a company. A brand is an intangible set of feelings and thoughts carried around by people, often (but not always) based on a promise made by the brand owner. It isn’t owned by anyone.

This culture of loose association with ‘brand’ is widespread in design consultancies. I often hear designers saying they are ‘revamping a brand’, or ‘creating branding’, when what they are engaged in is visual expression of a brand. And how many consultancies claim to offer ‘branding’ when in reality they offer graphic design, or ‘digital branding’ when they do Web design? Many have identified the word brand as a shortcut to bigger fees, and their noise has played a part in devaluing genuine expertise.

It seems that some basic work needs to be done on defining the verb ‘to brand’. Clarifying what branding involves might help non-experts to engage with it, rather than gag at the mere mention of the word. BrandGap is a welcome addition to clear and grounded discussion of this subject.

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