What is the meaning of brand?
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What is the meaning of brand?

Last month, our Head of New Thinking, Robert Jones, wrote an article in The Guardian headlined “Brand Is Becoming Meaningless”. As always, the sub-editor had some fun with this title, and it wasn’t quite what Robert meant. But the thinking behind it raises some interesting issues. 

We don’t look in awe at Apple, Google or Virgin for nothing; we think of them as awesome brands. But actually it’s the myriad interactions we have with them that make the brand up in our minds: not a shiny identity, but the meaning and the utility of our daily experiences with them.

The fact is that brand is not on the mind of today’s leaders, or, at least, what is on their mind is not articulated as brand. As we have interviewed over 40 leaders in the past few months, we have an idea of what is on their minds: how to build a long term culture while trying to achieve short term goals; how to take advantage of new opportunities and inspire innovation without unleashing chaos; and, in an age where the CEO is more of a designer-in-chief than commander-in-chief, how to deal with new problems like competition, a changing sector, or a business that has run out of steam – all of this while leading when everyone is their own leader.

So what can we do as marketers? I think there are three ways of thinking that are useful here:

  1. Think about your own purpose and be your own leader. Take your cue from the corporate narrative of the business, but then create your own north star for marketing. At Wolff Olins, we have a distributed leadership­: people know what they are on the hook for, but have the freedom to make decisions and create great, impactful stuff.
  1. Think conversation, not broadcast. In today’s hyper-connected world, we (us and our customers) are in this together. We aren’t, and shouldn’t be, telling customers what to think. Customers are partners to help shape products and offers (they will make these their own), and not an audience to talk at (they won’t listen anyway). And customers need to think of us as partners. In this way, we invite participation rather than unleash chaos. 
  1. Think experience ecosystem, not just identity system. Healthcare practitioners, for example, don’t care about brand. However, they do care about how technology can help them interact better with their patients, or how they can access more useful information from their suppliers. And we can affect what that experience feels like. That is one of the best ways to get mojo back and keep it there.

Get all of that right and there’s your brand: the effect of everything you are doing, not the cause of it; the bunch of experiences out there in the world; the way your customers feel about you; and the purpose you stand for.

So brand is not meaningless at all. The very point is that brand is now infused with a lot more meaning.

Rose Bentley Global Head of Sales and Marketing Wolff Olins
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