The humanity and biology of brands

This week I wrote a post for the Canadian Marketing Association titled, 'The Humanity and Biology of Brands'. The post was an attempt to articulate my sense of dissatisfaction with many of the methods and models we use to understand brands. If you'd like to read the original post you can view it here; or alternatively you can find a copy below. Please feel free to share any opinions, experiences or alternative views you have on the topic...

First a confession: When I was at University, I struggled with the concept of branding. An odd thing for someone in the business of building brands to admit, but it’s true; as a concept branding never made much sense. Every book had a different theory, every agency offered a different approach and every expert had some unique model or metric. Depending on who you talked to, or what you read, a brand could be a pyramid or a personality, an experience or an equation.

It seemed that branding was either the most compelling and complicated topic in marketing, or it was a load of crap.

Now an insight: Brands are like human beings. They exist as a mirror of our motivations, reflecting our ideals and dreams, fears and frailties. Nothing can exist in branding that doesn’t already exist in our everyday lives. In fact, if we want to better understand brands, we don’t need more complicated metrics, we need to better understand ourselves.

So how can we gain a better understanding? We need to go back to basics and re-consider the psychological and biological parallels between human beings and human brands.

Just like people, brands are born. Where a brand is born and to whom, are important factors in determining its development. A brand may have great nature (visual appeal or personality) but without the right nurture (parental support and security) it may never survive. As marketers, what type of parent are you and how will that affect the development of your brand?

Just like people, brands go through adolescence. Very few brands can become an overnight success; indeed it takes time to establish an identity and become independent. Attempting to circumvent this process can be as detrimental for a brand as it is for a person; the childhood stars of today are the forgotten failures of tomorrow (think Macaulay Culkin or Extreme Football League). What was your brand’s adolescence like; did it experiment and gain experience?

Just like people, brands need the right environment. As Prof. Richard Florida found in his study of cities, “the place we choose to live affects every aspect of our being. It can determine the income we earn, the people we meet, the friends we make, the partners we choose.” The same can be said for a brand. A brand must pick a place that will help it build relationships and earn the income it needs to survive. Is your brand in the right environment, an environment that matches its motivations?

Just like people, brands can get sick. We like to believe that we, and the things we create, are invincible - but nothing could be further from the truth. Human beings and brands are fragile and prone to illness. Even the strongest leaders can get sick (Bill Clinton or Toyota) and without proper treatment they may die (Michael Jackson or Pontiac). When was your last brand check-up, do you have insurance, or are you working your golden goose to death?

Just like people, brands must reproduce. Reproduction isn’t just fun, it’s fundamental to our survival. By reproducing we allow our species to adapt to the environment and evolve. A brand must also reproduce; it must adapt and evolve itself in order to maintain relevance and to respond to changes in the environment. Is your brand ready to reproduce?

As a brand strategist, having worked across three continents with many multinational clients, I believe there is something missing in our understanding of branding. As a
morphological researcher, I believe what’s missing is an understanding of their humanity. Because brands are more than a metric or a model, they are a mirror of our psychological and biological motivations; and to properly understand them, we must better understand ourselves.

Three interesting things on the interweb

What better way to pass the time at Hong Kong airport, than by sharing three interesting things on the interweb. Here’s an eclectic mix of topics for an eclectic city.

Interesting interweb one:

In this post on why things that can be measured probably aren’t worth knowing, Charles Frith voices a common perception amongst planners - namely that business is overly dependent on numbers. I have sympathy for his arguments, but suggest that the real problem isn’t with market research; it’s with some of the methodologies we use. Beyond the numbers, we need to spend more time properly understanding emotion:

Interesting interweb two:

In this presentation from the latest TED conference, Jamie Oliver continues his campaign for a revolution in our approach to food consumption - taking particular aim at the food manufacturing and retailing industries. From our research on family meals, I believe a large part of the problem lies in the separation of ‘food’ and ‘meals’ in people’s minds. Meals provide an emotional context for food and eating, and are correlated to improved nutritional patterns in families. Indeed you could say that food consumption really is better together:

Interesting interweb three:

In this audience fact sheet from LinkedIn, the social network provides some interesting insight into its user base. Average household incomes of $107,278. An average age of 43. But did you know that 22.4% of LinkedIn users have 4 or more computers at home? More facts to follow: