It’s easier than you’d think to get into an argument with Tom Peters. You just have to follow him on Twitter and bring up the word “branding.” That appears to be all it takes to send the author of the influential management bestseller In Search of Excellence into paroxysms. In one such exchange (OK, it was with me), he dismissed branding as “self-aggrandizing BS” and the application of “patina [to] mediocre work.” Notwithstanding his vehemence, it’s not entirely surprising that a McKinsey-whelped management consultant would be so product-focused. More concerning was the Greek chorus of support. It apparently remains fashionable to believe that if what you’re selling is good enough, it doesn’t need branding at all.
There is an obvious illogic to this dichotomy, of course. The history of marketing is equally well-stocked with stories of excellent products that failed and lousy products that were excellently branded and succeeded despite themselves. But treating brand-versus-product as a zero-sum game is surely the first step toward catastrophe.
Ironically, it was just that kind of thinking that spawned the Cult of the Product in the first place, following the orgy of winsomely branded vapourware that fuelled 2000’s tech meltdown. Like all backlashes, this one replaced one kind of irrational extremism with another, and a timeless truth—that making something great and claiming it as yours are two sides of the same marketing coin—was the casualty.
There is hardly a more toxic meme in modern business than Robert Stephens’ quip that “marketing is a tax you pay for being unremarkable.” Attributed to the founder of Geek Squad, now a pundit at large, this quote remains a favourite of conference keynotes, reliably getting corporate apparatchiks to pump their fists as if they were at a Rush concert. After all, products are concrete, comprehensible and quantifiable. Business is about solving customers’ problems. Surely branding simply muddies the water.
That, to be generous, would depend on your definition of branding. It would be easy to blame its faddish underestimation on, say, Steve Jobs or any other titan of the new economy for setting an example few corporate leaders could ever hope to follow. Beyond making grudging investments in their logos, those guys seemed to have dented their universes with barely a thought for branding. If the word to you means colours and fonts and messaging, then it’s true, they hardly had to try. And if you invent the iPhone, maybe you won’t have to either.
But that sells them, and branding, desperately short. Most of those companies, most of the consumer marketers Peters observed all those years ago and, indeed, most of the marketers we admire were, in effect, brands before they were products. From Henry Ford’s plan to build cars his own employees could afford to Google’s ambition to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” the brilliance of a great product has always begun—not ended—with a clear declaration of purpose. Purpose has always made people care enough to make great products, and purpose has always made customers trust those products more. Purpose is the source code for all branding, and you can’t be excellent without it. All you can be is a commodity.
In fact, it’s hard to see contempt for branding as anything other than arrogance or an allergy to accountability. If you’re a marketer, neither will do much for your value proposition. What consumers seem to understand even better than some of us in the business is that putting your name on a product says you’re proud of it and you hope they like it. There is no doubt that letting them down is a fatal mistake, but if it happens, it’s the product that’s to blame, not the label you put on it.
It’s probably reasonable to view consultants with suspicion these days. But don’t look at branding that way. If you don’t have a brand, you don’t have a purpose. And I can’t think of a more surefire formula for being unremarkable than that.