Friday, April 13, 2012

My uncle's got a barn. Let's put on a brand!

“Wharton crowdsources its branding message.” To be honest, I was already apoplectic just reading the headline. The rest of the article sort of faded in and out of a red mist. There was a lot of WTF-ing, some wisely aborted tweets, and a futile attempt to enlist the cat in my outrage. A legendary Ivy League business school, one of my least favourite 21st century verbs, and the word “branding” all in the same sentence. I briefly considered driving down there and occupying something.

With dawn came sober second thought. Now I just want to yell stuff in their general direction. These three things seem like a good start:

First, branding is a marketing discipline, not a creative game. It’s not a vanity, or some kind of pretty ribbon we put on a product, nor is it – shudder – a slogan. A brand is the strategic bridge between positioning and the marketplace, and by positioning I mean in the real, original, technical sense of the word. The sense that specifically interacts with a business model. Branding isn’t the fun part of marketing. It’s the test of whether you have a real business or not. To believe otherwise betrays a shockingly Industrial Age culture. It seems like these guys looked at it the way I might look at picking a tie. The way Justice Potter Stewart looked at pornography (“I know it when I see it”). It’s no wonder that the branding business is becoming such a magnet for amateurs and adventurists.

Second, branding and leadership are inseparable concepts. To debate who “owns” a brand is ridiculous. In the first instance, a brand is owned by the organization that wears it; its reputation simply reflects that. But more fundamentally, a brand is owned by whoever is ultimately responsible for the promise it’s making. To turn custody of it over to the workforce is to invite a solution that is both less challenging and less distinctive, by definition. Brands aren’t canvasses on which “communications directors” get to make their marks, nor should they amount to whatever everybody could agree on. They’re organizational standards that are supposed to be challenging and exclusionary. So much so that they actually shape culture. Leadership that delegates this is either avoiding responsibility or declaring its disinterest in customers. In a competitive marketplace, these should be hanging offences.

Finally, branding takes guts. There were no guts in evidence here. “Knowledge” for a university? (There are six other variations besides the “… for action” master tagline, so even this tiny edge was forsaken). So, did someone think that knowledge was the one thing that Wharton offered that nobody else did? Did the august team there determine that business’ need for knowledge was the one profound insight upon which the school could uniquely connect with the world? I don’t mean to sound pedantic – I realize there are already enough branding pedants to go around – but come on. This kind of thing is supposed to scare an organization a little. Be a bit difficult to live up to. Make competitors shake their heads in wonder. Even if I believed a tagline was a brand, I would have started with something like “Stupid people will destroy capitalism and only we can stop them,” and worked back from there. The quixotic idea of trying to make people happy with a soft drink or set them free with a computer, these are branded promises, stronger for their audacity. The idea that you can get actionable knowledge at a business school is not.

In the end, consumers look to a brand for signals about what a corporation values. If you get it right, it will attract people who share those values. This creates a sort of infinite feedback loop that makes a business sustainable and gives commerce a conscience. That’s what drove me so crackers about the Wharton story. It’s not just that the bar was set so low, but by whom. This kind of thinking teaches everybody – marketers, consumers, the press - to be left-brained and cynical about brands. That never ends well, and I can’t imagine a worse time in our history to be proposing it as a mission for tomorrow’s corporate leaders. It was a terrible example to set. And the worst part is, it will pass unnoticed. Unlike poor Gap, say, or Tropicana, Wharton will escape the public mocking it so richly deserves.

Which, I guess, means that it was never really a brand in the first place. Okay, wow. Good thing I slept on it.