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Branding used to be considered exotic and mysterious, created by marketing magicians who cast an uncanny spell over consumers. These days it’s more commonplace, no longer on a pedestal. We’re told by career experts that we all have an individual brand and need to shape it for success. Singers, sports stars, celebrities and social media influencers are routinely referred to as brands.

“Anyone working in today’s marketplace works in branding – to some degree. And anyone living in modern society is equally affected by branding,” longtime marketing strategist Mark Kingsley writes in Universal Principles of Branding.

But an element of mystery remains. Mr. Kingsley stresses a brand is an abstraction and not just a physical object. The abstraction is not so much of an idea or a thing, but of a way of being. There may be internal contradictions within that way of being but the brand must still be authentic.

“Even a consumer packaged good like Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes can authentically promote healthy living with a tagline (”They’re gr-reat!”) and corporate initiatives that promote high school sports programs. This is the power of branding: The abstracting ability of the human mind to discover ways of being through an orchestrated combination of product, marketing, emotions and culture,” he writes.

Brands trigger our associative memory – the part of our brain that connects two initially unrelated items, like a name and a face – rather than our historical memory. It might begin with a simple perception of colour, shape, smell, sound or other stimuli that then get attached to the product or company. Yellow and two arches signals McDonald’s. Perhaps the smell of meat, French fries or the sound of the restaurant also becomes embodied in our brain. Logos are associated with a company after exposure over time.

The marketers don’t make these connections. Consumers do the ordering, so beware of the marketing consultant who confidently promises a new logo will become an immediate visual identity or who declares what is on-brand or not. “Perhaps a brand is better thought of as a specific node in a network of associations,” he suggests.

Marketing messages today, he says, trend to appeal to the basest reptilian stimuli, focusing on fear, security, material gain or the attraction of sexual partners. However, today’s environment of algorithms and content generation would seem to offer the potential for more-nuanced psychologically complex messages, picking up on essential elements of individual personality such as eagerness for new experiences, thoughtfulness, comfort in social settings, willingness to help others and response to stress and uncertainty.

Branding is not advertising. Advertising is more immediate, usually a specific campaign. It focuses on the pre-purchase period, building awareness and differentiation from alternatives, motivating action. Branding has a wider scope and longer-term intention, dealing with all the connections between the purchaser and the company, even including how something is packaged, how it is taken out of the package, and how tech support is offered when needed.

Also, how it sounds. He notes that Mercedes-Benz vehicles are engineered to make a reassuring, solid thud when the door closes. The association, hopefully, is with quality engineering, safety, speed and reliability. Snapple Iced Tea bottles used to make a distinctive pop when opened, a connection to freshness, but when the company switched to plastic that was lost – as well as a sense of promise. For him, the product no longer tastes the same. “The possibilities for sonic cues are endless,” he adds.

Sturgeon’s Law, posited by writer Theodore Sturgeon, is that 90 per cent of the output in most fields is crap. Mr. Kingsley feels that’s definitely true for advertising. It includes celebrity advertising, which he describes as the easiest path to client approval but the laziest form of professional practice. “There needs to be a logical connection between celebrity and brand. Carlos Santana was a perfect choice to endorse Mesa/Boogie guitar amps. But his line of shoes erased his brand equity, even if a portion of the proceeds go to charity,” Mr. Kingsley writes.

A recent curious trend has been the celebrity as brand creative director. He wonders what actual product innovations came from Justin Timberlake’s time as creative director of Bud Light Platinum or Alicia Keys at BlackBerry. As for social media influencers, he calls them a racket and urges companies to exercise caution about such pairing. He suggests the aim of people to have a career as an influencer is the best example of how social media has infected our minds. “Influencers are interchangeable pieces in a collective race to the bottom,” he declares. As well, he argues they are usually too disconnected from a brand’s authentic position to be worthwhile unless the person is actually a genuine member of the brand’s audience.

One of his principles for marketers is do no harm. Branding can exist only if there is an audience so everyone working in the field should direct their efforts to the continued presence of that audience. Branding presentations tend to be positive as no project will be approved that obviously destroys future efforts. On that score, the rationale for brand development should be extended beyond profit and consider how to address ecological, social and health issues, amplifying the marketing notion of a customer’s product journey.


  • Bitcoin billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried, recently convicted of fraud, gave great thought – and ample lucre – to celebrity endorsements. Michael Lewis, in his biography Going Infinite, says it started with plunking his FTX corporate name on the home arena for basketball’s Miami Heat, by association conferring some legitimacy to his company since government approval was involved. He paid $162-million to put the company’s name on every baseball umpire’s uniform since those were more omnipresent than on a player’s uniform. Paying Tom Brady $55-million (and then-wife Gisele Bundchen $19.8-million) delighted Mr. Bankman-Fried because the connection to the quarterback was constantly mentioned by people he met. And the $15.7-million to Canadian entrepreneur Kevin O’Leary, host of Shark Tank, for what was described as “twenty service hours, twenty social media posts, one virtual lunch and 50 autographs” was thought to make sense because one million people follow him for his financial advice.
  • Denis Sison, who has steered brands for Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola, Sprite and Blackberry, says every marketer needs five skills: Socializer to share and communicate ideas; scientist in a digital data world; storyteller, to establish the narrative of the brand; strategist, to develop impactful goals; and synthesizer, to bring everything together in a world of artificial intelligence and drive results.
  • Research found that customer satisfaction with customer service bots increased to similar levels as human service when customers were offered discounts for ordering via a bot-operate channel.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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