Conseil en innovation stratégique

Brand as Metaphor

Innovation for Good (News) #63

For better or for worse, we live in a branded world. We are at a time in history when brands go beyond being business platforms to becoming symbols of our times. Inundated with marketing messages, today’s consumers are brand weary. Everywhere they go, they are confronted with brand imagery. They are astute marketers by necessity, understanding that brands are clearly marketing efforts. Add the Internet to the marketing mix and you find ‘brand-creep’ in every email box from New York to Mumbai or Shanghai. While there are more eyeballs, it’s harder to break through and get people to connect to a brand.

The story of the blind men and the elephant

We’ve all heard the story of the blind men and the elephant. Different men examine different parts of an elephant. One examines the trunk and concludes that “an elephant is like a vine”. Another examines a leg and concludes that “an elephant is like a pillar”. A third examines the tail and concludes “an elephant is like a rope”. A fourth runs his hand across the elephant’s side and concludes “an elephant is like a wall’. All of them are correct. All of them miss the essential truth. An elephant is much more than the sum of its anatomical parts. It is a living, breathing being.

A brand is a person

Much of the literature and discussions on branding make this same mistake. With all due respect to branding and purpose experts a brand is more than a “why, a name, a sign, a symbol or design, or combination of them intended to identify the goods and services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of competition”. Aaker (way back in 1996) is closer to the mark when he discussed ‘brand personality’ and ‘brand – customer relationships’ as essential elements in a ‘brand identity system’. Keller’s (1998) focus on` brand equity’, understated the role of a brand’s ‘persona’ in building `brand loyalty’.  The point we are leading to here is that people relate to brands in exactly the same way that they relate to people. Whether we care to accept it or not, in people’s minds ” a brand is a person” just as surely as a “person is a brand”. As a person, a brand has two legs: the sustaining one, ie. the one which defines the brand’s purpose, vision frame and values, and the moving one, the leg that makes a brand lead the way through specific initiatives (inside out). Both legs should permanently be consistent one with the other, otherwise the brand moves like a crab (I did not say ‘crap’ 😊). The weird thing is that a majority of people still do not relate purpose and innovation, leading to undifferenciated perception in customers minds. (remember: 77% of existing brands in the world may disappear without people even noticing…).

Our argument in this discussion is then that we need to assume as the primary starting point in all our brand management endeavours that “a brand is a person”. It is an extremely fruitful and helpful analogy. People have names; so do brands. People belong to families, so do brands. People project a certain style and image; have unique personalities; have physical characteristics that distinguish them; so do brands. You can tell a person by their friends and associates; so too with brands. People experience a life cycle; so do brands. Our perception of a person is determined by our interaction with it. Their attitude and behaviour towards us often determine ours to it. So it is with brands. Our relationships with people are built on honesty, trustworthiness, reliability and predictability. So it is with brands. A person’s signature on a cheque is their promise to honour an agreement, a contract. A brand logo represents this same promise. A person can behave in a manner that marks them as a good citizen. So too with brands CSR strategies. The essence of a person’s character is displayed by the values they choose to cherish or ignore. These values guide and determine their behaviour. So it is with a brand.

A brand is intangible and is not physically constrained by time and place. There is a mystical pervasiveness about a brand that transcends these human limitations. I have never met Emmanuel Macron, but I relate to him as I do to any other brand; through media sound bites, carefully manufactured press releases and images created by highly paid spin doctors. A politician is the quintessential brand. No surprise if trust in brands is about the same level as in politicians, bankers, insurers, health experts these days.

People are born. Brands are created. Problems arise when Brand Managers don’t know or lose the plot. When brands change their persona, relationships change. Uncertainty enters the relationship and consumers and stakeholders back off, waiting for reassurance; that they’re dealing with that same `person’ they’re grown to trust. Fairly basic stuff really.

But marketing and strategy are no rocket sciences it is applied common sense.

So what can we apply from the `brand as person’ metaphor?

1/ Essentially that relationships are everything! Positive relationships are based on such universally time-honoured values as honesty, integrity, reliability and trustworthiness. If a brand can add to these fundamental values the personal characteristics of innovation, style, wit and charm, Brand Managers and Comex members have given themselves a head start over the competition. Of course at the heart of a good relationship lies good communication. That’s where the ‘’two legs’’ metaphor come in : if your brand purpose (leg #1) is only advertised without consistent hero markers (leg #2), aimed not only at customers but also staff, shareholders, suppliers, government; the wider ecosystem community…, there is high risk the money spent will lead to ‘’purpose washing’’, which will not enhance the brand.

2/ Brands can learn from cultural icons : icons do what brands strive to do: to be imprinted in our  consciousness. However, icons are irreplaceable, incomparable and timeless, whereas many brands are commonplace, inconsistent and indistinguishable. Brands can learn a lot from cultural icons. Let’s take some. As a starter, and in order to celebrate Joe Biden’s election, Lady Gaga (who has sung the American National Anthem on January 20th 2021) has a motto which could be well adapted to brands : ‘’tell a consistent story, engage your fans, own the floor, fish where the fish is…’’. How many brands can you name which have successfully embodied such issues? What about Jane Austen: “Lively, witty, funny, sunny…filled with life lessons”. Or Sting: “Gets me in touch with my emotional side…takes me places…”. Harley Davidson: ‘’ Spirit of adventure, the cowboy in all of us on a motorcycle…’’.

‽ For Good? Yes when strategic innovation is the 360° servant of the brand purpose. Never forget that brand loyalty, brand equity, brand commitment are simply measures of how well we are doing.


Brice Auckenthaler is Tilt ideas (Kea Group) and Oh!My!God! ceo and a senior speaker in Trends, Branding & Innovation. Brice has written 7 books on such issues. Follow him on LinkedIn where he has posted Innovation for Good (News) since early 2020.