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Beyond Branding is written by members of The Medinge Group

The Beyond Branding blog

November 01, 2003

A gratuitous rant in the name of humanity... 

I have ranted on the fragility of human connection elsewhere of course, but I can't resist another nag at the superficiality and human emptiness of branding...

If organisations are to try and fulfil our manifest desire for human authenticity, they will need to focus on at least one of the following:

1. A Human Offer: think Alcoholics Anonymous or Samaritans, or South-West airlines in the US. Brands that are focused here promise a human experience at the heart of the brand. Not something anthropomorphic. Not a metaphor. Not a bloody ad campaign like kit-kat!

Love is indeed the killer app', but this is not about being a prostitutional 'lustmark' in Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts Lovemark (TM) terms. This is real people delivering real personal value to other people.

The trouble with embarking upon true intimacy is that emotional connection is very, very difficult to mass produce.

For every person for whom the brand works, there will be dozens for whom it doesn't. You can only 'love' a limited number of people, because love demands attention, and action and reciprocation. Brands which aspire to make human connections face a constant challenge not to let process and a misguided desire for consistency get in the way of selective human connections of genuine quality.

2. A Human or Humane Implication: think Innocent drinks, or Pret a Manger in the UK . This is where the the bulk of advertising fakery is presently focused. Brands that work well here tell a clear and compelling story about their (purported) heritage, or imply an engaging and inspiring vision of the people behind the brand.

Personality-led brands like Ted Baker or Paul Smith or Versace address this need. Very often these are Zeitgeist brands, emerging through a powerful human insight at one point in time. However a human implication is only sustainable if it's true! Often these brands fail to survive, because they confuse the pizazz offering with the underlying human need.

Will Innocent or Pret still be here in 20 years? The jury is out. I hope they're banking the cash right now.

3. A Human relationship Intention: think personal services, like TenUK or private school brands like Eton, or business schools like Harvard, or community brands like the Labour party in the UK, or monastic or religious orders.

Brands that live here began, way back when, with a ground-breaking relationship model, often offering simplicity, affection, communitarianism or humour as a core value. They intend to build a sustained and responsive human relationship over time.

They are challenged by a need for continual innovation in response to shifting needs. Exceptional service is only exceptional once and the attitudes and honesty which are demanded of relationship brands are under constant and justified scrutiny. These are low-tolerance and perversely individualistic brands.

4. A Humane brand Motivation: think Body Shop or Ben & Jerry's, or Patagonia.

Brands that grow up here bring with a clear and humane point of view. They wear their values on their sleeve and stand by the consequences, even if it means less profit. (And yes. Sometimes, despite all the sustainability rhetoric, having a conscience does mean making less money for shareholders, certainly over a short timeframe.)

Delivering here is toughest of all; it demands authenticity of treatment of of all stakeholders. The trouble with passion is - it's difficult to sustain. Humane motivation is difficult to discover, almost impossible to communicate, virtually unprovable and liable to lead to constant argument.

Brands that wish to live here need complete openness; total honesty and a heavy dose of humility. Their CRM strategies must be 'for better for worse', and are probably only sustainable for businesses like the Co-operative bank...whose stakeholders are sufficicently 'attuned' (not aligned - heaven forfend) to mandate ethical action.

Whichever of these human axes an organisation intends to focus on, it must be credible on other dimensions too. Hyper-sensitive stakeholders, with different, ableit momentary demands are willing to dismiss them at any point. It can expect to be exposed and attacked on all dimensions. Most importantly, it must deliver on its specific human promises and on the expectations that accompany those promises. Only by matching needs and constantly delivering on those needs; by learning and being seen to learn, can an organisation build respectful relationships.

This learning process creates the fifth brand requirement in the relationship age:

5. A human Interaction: Think here of brands like e-Bay or Epinions or Zagats guides or Moveable Type, the blogging engine, where the product is actually the value created by the interactions on the community. Do a greater of lesser degree, for these businesses, the process IS the product.

The means by which these 'mutualist' brands engage must be free of fakery and exploitation. Ideally, they will simply facilitate latent desire for dialogue and liberate word of mouth enthusiasm.

So this Humanisation stuff is really, really hard...

For all organisations, even those that feel they are functional or values-free - (and by implication that their stakeholders are also values free!), the pressure to 'fess up on all these dimensions is significant.

As deferential trust inevitably and thankfully erodes, it must be replaced by respect. Both self-respect, and respect for others.

Forget content; focus on connection. Forget knowledge; focus on learning.

Rant over. I feel so much better now.
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