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.


Eric Buchegger said...

Great insights, Nick. I have never really thought of branding from that perspective before. I am curious, are you able to recommend any books on branding? I am in search of one, and would like to improve my understanding and knowledge.

Nick Black said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nick Black said...

Hi Eric,

Thanks for taking the time to comment; great question BTW.

It’s taken me a while to respond because I really do have issues with many of the ‘methods and models used in branding.’ There are a few exceptions though. In my opinion, the following two authors are worth reading and remembering:

1. Prof. Jean-Noel Kapferer

This guy’s brilliant. He’s developed one of the world’s most innovative branding models (called the Brand Identity Prism – on page 183 of preview below) and his book’s are like branding bibles. If you only have the time / money to buy one book, get this one:

2. Prof. Leslie de Chernatony

Another of the world’s true experts in branding. His books compile many of the best theories and practices on the topic of brands. If you have some time / money to spare, get this book too:

While both of these books may seem a little fringe, trust me, they’ll give you more branding insight and innovation than all of Seth Godin’s books combined.