Monday, August 18, 2008

Branding or Branded

Deciphering the importance of branding
Does meaning define the brand or does the brand provide the meaning? One author sees authenticity and community while another sees artifice and illusion.

Branding has become an increasingly important part of marketing — or has it? As a way to convey meaning and value, the practice of creating a unique name is a no-brainer, yet the promise that this act carries is both explicit and implicit.

If you are asking a customer to make a choice based on what the name means and the value it imparts, you'd better back it up. On the other hand, some brands organically develop as a part of a genuine culture, though companies may try to artificially induce the gestation process.

Two recent books look at the phenomenon and attempt to make sense of it.

Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are: Rob Walker. Random House. 256 pages.
This is a terrific book by the writer of the New York Times Magazine's ''Consumed'' column. Walker's curiosity leads him to many unexpected and interesting places and some remarkable people — skateboarders and women with red hats, T-shirt makers inspired by Manhattan landmarks and Red Bull promoters.

All discover an identity by either creating a brand or inhabiting an existing one. In addition, Walker sorts through the wisdom of gurus like Godin and Gladwell as he seeks to understand the reasons that people who claim to be uninfluenced and impervious to branding are some of its biggest adherents and proponents.

He coined the term ''murketing'' as a descriptor for the murky marketing that seems to occur mostly under the radar and often without the push of mass media.

He put up a website and blog to promote and extend this book, But the ultimate finding of Walker's research seems to be that the image of the brands we're attracted to reflects and resonates our own values and aspirations, which, of course, is what brands are supposed to do in the first place.

Obsessive Branding Disorder: The Illusion of Business and the Business of Illusion. Lucas Conley. PublicAffairs. 288 pages.
Conley is on a similar quest, but unlike Walker, he's not necessarily seeking enlightenment -- more like bemusement, it would seem.

The author begins by pointing out that some Japanese women so value Louis Vuitton goods that they forgo motherhood so they can afford to purchase the expensive handbags. From there, Conley looks at the virtual cults that have grown around some brands and how their corporate progenitors are working overtime to create and spread new ones.

Though he's a bit outraged at the endemic materialism evidenced in the deification of consumer goods, Conley manages to report the proceedings seriously.

He is a deft journalist and asks a lot of good questions. Conley is suitably skeptical of such things as product placement (alleged) in James Patterson novels, corporate-sponsored ''grass roots'' movements and personal branding by marketing guru Tom Peters and other less notable individuals who want to be recognized and celebrated more than they probably deserve to be.

While Walker seeks authenticity and finds community, Conley sees branding as an illusion, a trick, a way to conceal, mislead and seduce.

Of course that's all true, but the opposite — what Walker writes about — is the other side of the coin (so to speak). Some brands are real, or at least they evoke reality. The difference might be negligible.
published June 2008 in The Miami Herald

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