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Brand Management

The Dichotomy Of Brand


The Dichotomy Of Brand

What is a brand? This is a question I’ve discussed many times with many people, and have had a myriad of responses consisting of various [interesting] definitions and theories. However, if I strip all of the responses back to basics, there are fundamentally two types:

  • the brand is the appearance, eg logo and visual identity
  • the brand is the feeling or the meaning, eg the values and purpose

So which of these is right? Well, they both are, and there is an issue here which is at the core of what I term ‘The dichotomy of brand’.

Brands are not a new phenomenon, they have been a part of industrial production since the mid to late nineteenth century. From its inception brand has been used to identify and differentiate, but increasingly brand managers strive to give them ‘human’ attributes such as ‘values’ and ‘feelings’ in order to create, define and evolve relationships. As such, brands have now become complex symbols representing ‘ideas and attributes’.

Much of brand management literature persists in considering brands as internal, proprietary resources, and many companies still consider the brand to be their intellectual property. However, consumer research literature increasingly emphasizes the importance of the productive role of consumers in the creation of brand value and the brand as ‘shared cultural property’. Rather than objects of exchange brands can be viewed as the ‘sum total of relationships among stakeholders’; dynamic objects in movement that continually develop through time from the relations of multiple agents.

In other words, it is the contradictory nature of a brand that means it is simultaneously the ‘things’ which help to shape its identity and enable it to be identified, and the ‘concepts’ which help to shape the attributes from which people derive meaning.

The ‘things’ give the brand presence, and as such will be finished entities. The ‘concepts’ give the brand meaning, and as such will change according to their current context and to each individual. 

Things                         Concepts

Appearance                    Purpose

Language                        History

Product / Service             Value

Symbols                          Character

Imagery                           Ideology

Sounds                            Aspiration


Here Is The Dichotomy Of Brand

The ‘things’ which give a brand presence can be owned, they can be finished, they can be controlled. The ‘concepts’ which give a brand meaning must be shared, they must remain in development, they cannot be fully controlled.

Things                           Concepts

Tidy                                     Messy

Finished                              Always developing

Closed                                 Open

Perfect                                 Imperfect

Owned                                 Shared

Proprietary                         Co-created

So What Does This Mean For People Leading A Brand?

Once you accept the dichotomy which is at the core of brand, then you can begin to work with it. It is in the interactions between the ‘things’ and ‘concepts’ that the brand takes shape, and so understanding how to work with each of the following six aspects of a brand is vital.

1. Be Identifiable

The ‘things’ which create the identity should be clearly defined and coherent, as it is their role to ensure the brand is identifiable and differentiated. A definitive identity which is crafted and controlled is essential to shape a brand which people will identify. Whether this is the logo, visual style, audio, typography – make sure people see that you stand out from the competition.

2. Be Confident

The ‘things’ are not where you need to be co-creating and asking your audience for too much input. Your audience should not be designing your logo, they aren’t the best placed or informed to create your website, they shouldn’t have too much input in shaping how you appear to the world. Of course, ask for thoughts on what the brand means to them, but stick to professionals for turning any research and insight into the design and communication of your identity.

3. Be Protected

The ‘things’ of your brand can be owned and need protecting. Your logo should be trademarked, what you can cover with Intellectual Property do so, if you can copyright or patent anything then do it. Your ‘things’ of your brand are extremely valuable, proprietary assets for your business, and they must be protected as such.

But at the same time…

4. Be Open

The ‘concepts’ which give the brand meaning and help to form relationships are shared cultural property. They must be considered to be ‘owned’ as much by people who buy into the brand as the business if you hope to shape a brand which people feel a part of. Of course this is more true in some instances than others, and will differ according to your business type (eg a sports team brand will be felt to be ‘owned’ much more by its audience than a gasoline brand – it is a more emotive brand).

5. Be Evolutionary

The ‘concepts’ must be defined to suggest or encourage what a brand might mean to people, and try to take a position in peoples minds, but we cannot rigidly define exactly what the brand means to each person. The personal nature of the meaning of a brand must be appreciated in order to keep the brand relevant. Keep the meaning of your brand in evolution to ensure it works for its current context.

6. Be Informed

The ‘concepts’ of what the brand means to individuals will differ, so create ways to listen to what is being said about your brand. In our networked world, what is said between people can have a huge effect on what the brand means to others, so ensure that you are listening to what people have to say. Treat the voice that people now have as a plus point, a way of getting insight into your brand and seeing it from a point of view that you may not have considered.

Only by understanding what you should protect and what you can’t, what you must keep closed and what should be open, what you can own and what you must share, can you effectively lead your brand. It will also mean that you don’t waste time and money protecting what can’t be protected, or controlling the uncontrollable. Be confident in both being in control and sharing, knowing when to lead and when to listen.

The Blake Project Can Help: The Brand Positioning Workshop

Build A Human Centric Brand At Marketing’s Most Powerful Event: The Un-Conference: 360 Degrees of Brand Strategy for a Changing World, May 14-16, 2018 in San Diego, California. A fun, competitive-learning experience reserved for 50 marketing oriented leaders and professionals.

Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Licensing and Brand Education

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