13 ways of looking at brands

Brands have different functions in our lives, some easy to understand and some that deserve extra pondering.

By Brad Berens

A few days ago, my friend Om Malik reached out with these questions about brands:

I am thinking about something and wanted to get a better idea of what it means to be a music artist or a media company as a brand. What defines a brand? Any thoughts on that? I am wondering what happens to traditional brands over time. What makes them retain or lose their value?

I have a lot to say on this topic, which will surprise nobody, some of which I shared with Om and which have now evolved into this piece.

Image created using Ideogram.ai., and yes I know it’s 18.

There is a lot of mystical, Three Card Monte misdirecting nonsense out there about brands.

Marketers tend to overplay brand loyalty quite a bit. Byron Sharp, in his magnificent book How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know, points out both 1) that even the most loyal customers will buy—without experiencing anguish—competitor brands when their preferred brand isn’t available, and 2) that brands grow simply when people are aware of their existence and able to purchase them. The awareness bit is the hard part.

I’ve written a lot about the roles that brands play in our lives, with this 2019 piece as one good example, but my thoughts have matured over the last few years.

Here are 13 overlapping ways of thinking about brands across a spectrum starting with the simplest and ending with the most complex.

Let’s start with brands from the perspective of the businesses that makes the branded things or services.

1. At their most basic, brands are marks of ownership. The brand says, “this is my property, my product, my service” which can have disturbing implications depending on what gets branded, like enslaved people.

2. Brands assert quality, although not necessarily high quality. Along these lines, my friend Jeffrey Hayzlett, former CMO of Kodak, defines brand simply as “a promise kept.”

3. Brands exist to create distinction where there is none. Brands started with cattle as a way of distinguishing among virtually identical heads. Today, there is typically no difference between a big brand and a store brand—think Tide detergent versus the generic in your local Safeway (which sometimes even comes in an orange box) or Pepcid versus the pharmacy brand for famotidine at your nearby CVS. Media thinkers refer to a “brand premium” as the amount of money that a company can get away with charging for a generic product.

4. Products that belong in clear consideration sets invest more on their brands than products that are truly distinct. There is little product difference between Coke and Pepsi, Pampers and Huggies, Honda and Toyota, but the advertising and brand exercises are different.

The reason Elon Musk resisted advertising Tesla for so many years (until quite recently) was that he justly believed his Electric Vehicles were so different that he didn’t need to buy ads. Today, with lots of EVs coming out from other manufacturers, that is no longer the case.

Now, let’s move onto brands from the customer point of view.

5. Brands exist to help us be lazy. Brands preserve people’s precious cognitive energy by acting as a shortcut to actual thinking. As I’ve written before, we have a limited amount of decision-making energy each day, and most of the decisions we make are satisficing exercises rather than optimizing ones.

This is where retail brands start to become important: I trust that the things I buy at Costco are going to be decent quality at a fair price. At Trader Joe’s, I embrace the more limited, more curated selection because it means I have fewer decisions to make even if that also means I have fewer options.

It took an extraordinary event for me to switch toothpastes from Crest to Colgate a few years ago because my toothpaste choice didn’t matter much, so I had lazily continued to buy the brand my mom bought when I was little.

6. Brands can be identity markers, both signaling to other people who you are (for example, I use an iPhone, drink Peet’s coffee, and wear Lucky Jeans) and also helping you tell your own story to yourself. My friend Jeff Rosenblum calls these “passion brands” in his insightful book Friction.

7. Identity mark brands also connect to purpose-driven brands, where customers assert their values based on what they buy—people concerned about the environment will buy green products, and patriots will prefer Made in the U.S.A. Jim Stengel (former CMO of P&G) wrote extensively about purpose-driven marketing in his book Grow. More recently, Harvard’s Ranjay Gulati wrote Deep Purpose. Patagonia is an obvious example here, as is the Unilever / Dove “campaign for real beauty.”

Purpose washing—where brands wrap themselves in a purpose as a marketing gimmick without actually doing things differently—is a problem both because it’s wrong and also because fake purpose brands make genuine ones seem less authentic.

8. Brands can help to define community from the outside—and here we’re starting to get closer to the media and music brands that Om asked about, but not just those. The Hell’s Angels ride Harleys, for example.

This community defining sort of brand is often easiest to see with kids. My daughter and all her friends went through a phase when they wanted to wear Abercrombie & Fitch clothing, for example. On a darker side, Brandy Melville (there’s a recent HBO/Max documentary about this) has a very precise archetype of the girls they want to wear their clothes (young, very thin, white, blue eyed, blonde) that can make girls who are more than a standard deviation away feel bad about themselves.

9. At their most complex, brands elicit a specific, idiosyncratic form of attention. Or, in other words, brands can also help to define community from the inside, inside the heads of customers (to paraphrase Jeremy Bullmore). This is where media brands of all stripes (newspapers and magazines, TV shows, movie franchises, book series, comic books, podcasts, Taylor Swift) can thrive because part of the customer’s identity reinscribes itself with each passing exposure to and engagement with the brand.

10. I’ve written extensively about cognitive or aesthetic funding (for example, here), and there are lots of smart people writing about fan behavior and fan cognition. (Henry Jenkins is my favorite.) The key aspect of this sort of longitudinal brand engagement is time.

All brands are temporal exercises, but more complex media brands (e.g., the difference between watching Star Trek in the 1960s and later watching Star Trek: Strange New World in the 2020s along with all the other intervening shows) reward repeat engagements, with time after time folding on top of each other, building an omnidirectional tranche of associations.

11. This is also where things can get dangerous for complex brands because pleasure in recognition of how a brand grows over time can become a tedious homework assignment. The moment that a Marvel movie will not make sense unless you’ve seen other Marvel movies is the moment that the audience starts to decay.

Likewise, brand extensions can backfire on the manufacturer, creating confusion and requiring thought when the customer wants not to think about that decision. For example, there are something between 20 and 70 different kinds of Crest toothpaste, which can turn a visit to the toothpaste aisle into a vision of burning hell.

12. The best complex brands exist at two tiers at the same time. The bottom tier delights anybody who engages, while the top tier rewards the repeat or more sophisticated customer. Old Warner Bros. cartoons were replete with cultural references that the average 1930s kid didn’t field, but their parents did. Disney’s Aladdin and DreamWorks Animation’s Shrek also did this. The absolute master of it was Shakespeare, which I’ve written and spoken about all over the world (for example, here).

13. Customers generally want a bun of novelty wrapped around a hot dog of familiarity, which is a delicate balance that is easy to screw up.

Om asked, “what happens to traditional brands over time. What makes them retain or lose their value?”

I’m rather bored of hearing about The Ship of Theseus because it has become a business gibberish cliché, but it’s handy here. Brands that are static eventually die because culture moves on. Brands that change too quickly (the paradigmatic example is New Coke) die because they alienate their customers.

One reason why the recent and terrific movie The Fall Guy got off to a slow start (good news: it seems to be gathering steam in theaters even though it is already available for home viewing) might be a hot dog/bun miscalculation. The studio might have overestimated moviegoers’ familiarity with and affection for with the 1980s Fall Guy TV series starring Lee Majors that inspired the film. (The movie is great fun and worth seeing on the biggest screen you can find.)

Final thought: Artificial Intelligences are huge threats to conventional ways of thinking about brands—urgently but not exclusively the simple brands I talked about at first—because if we have some other entity to think through myriad options and make satisficing decisions for us, then we don’t need brands as cognitive shortcuts.


Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow. He is principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. You can learn more about Brad at www.bradberens.com, follow him on Post and/or LinkedIn, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter (only some of his columns are syndicated here).



See all columns from the Center.

May 29, 2024