This is an extract from a talk delivered to MBA students at Brunel Business School earlier this month.
This painting by Edouard Manet is called The Bar at the Folies Bergere. It was painted in Paris in1882. Why am I starting with this? Well, it’s the first example of a brand consciously depicted in a work of art, at least so far as I know. It also shows the first ever registered trademark. A red triangle, a device adopted by Bass Breweries to identify their product – a bottled ale.
So we have a simple device as an aid to identification. Over time such simple shapes resonate for us in different ways – think of Apple’s apple, Nike’s tick. They say much more about the company than a mere mark of identification.
So, yes, at the centre of a brand we may have a symbolic visual gesture – a mark on paper so to speak – but that is neither where it starts nor where it ends.
In a very deep sense we understand personalities and celebrities as brands nowadays. They are ‘brands’ because they are the distillation or crystalisation of someone, through a combination of what they think, what they do, how they behave and how they appear. We can say this is about celebrity, glitz and glamour, or influence and power. Essentially though, we are making a connection with them, and they with us, often carefully stage-managed, sometimes with us as complicit participants.
In business a brand can make a company more attractive, more relevant, more admired, more appealing, because there is a connection that is over and above the transactional. Let’s take an example: Amazon. When it started it was an innovator. A new way of doing business. Back then many of us were unconvinced, a bit suspicious. We took a punt and ordered a book. It was an easy transaction, the book was cheap; it arrived as promised two days later. We had barely lifted a finger. It was convenient. We tried it again, and again it delivered on its promise. We began to trust it. We felt comfortable with the organisation that gives us one rewarding experience after another. We even became a little emotionally attached. We saw the smile in Amazon’s logo and the arrow from A to Z as meaningful. Oh dear! We then found that Amazon didn’t pay its taxes, or tried to avoid doing so. The connection so carefully built up was damaged, if not broken, by an act of corporate behaviour that was dissonant with the one we had learnt to expect and trust.
And they should have known better. As Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, once said: "Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room."
So what we know is that consistency of behaviour at a corporate level is just as important as at the consumer level. That we are all stakeholders in brands of this scale and influence, whether we are customers or not.
You don’t have to be a coffee drinker to have view on Starbucks. This is why branding is so vital to business success and so sensitive when its power is ignored. The brand is the nervous system that joins all these parts of a business together. (We note that the name Starbucks is virtually absent from their website. It is enough for us just to identify the mermaid symbol).
Companies can’t afford to view their brands as anything less than the sum total of all the experiences, direct or indirect, virtual or physical, that people have of our organisation. So today we talk about the brand experience.