Branding Talk Isn’t Helping Your Company. Here’s What Should Replace It

Last week, WPP brought out its league table of the world’s most valuable brands. It values Apple at $183 billion and McDonald’s at $95 billion. Meanwhile, over at Omnicom’s Interbrand, they reckon that the Apple badge is worth a mere $33 billion, whereas McDonald’s is worth $35 billion. So who’s right? Neither of them. I don’t think that you can value brands, because they’re just a convenient fiction. Once they were a useful way of looking at the world. Now that such a massive industry has developed around them, they’re actually distorting the way companies do business. Is it time to stop talking about brands and branding altogether? I think we should all have a try.

“Essentially all models are wrong,” said George Pelham-Box, one of the most influential statisticians of the 20th century, “but some of them are useful.” Let’s remember that branding is only a model of the way that consumers think about products and services, so by definition, it’s wrong. But that doesn’t mean it’s not useful–so long as we don’t get carried away by imagining it’s the truth.


Was the Think Different campaign really a branding coup? Or just the outcome of deeper change?

Think of maps: A simple map pretends that the Earth is flat, and that’s fine for getting you across town. But if you try to navigate a plane across the Atlantic on that principle, you’re going to get a big surprise when you come in to land. (That’s why the route your long-haul flight takes looks like a curve on the seatback map.) All these “brand valuation” metrics are doing something similar: treating a flat earth theory as if it’s the truth. And they’re landing in the wrong place.


I used to work with Orange Telecom, a late-starter in the cellular market that became one of the biggest consumer brands in Europe. Hans Snook, its eccentric founder, would happily talk all day in his office about science fiction, colonic irrigation, or feng shui. Only one topic was taboo: the Orange brand. Brands were, he maintained, a by-product of having great products and communicating them well to people. Power stations that generate a lot of electricity probably have a lot of steam coming out of the chimneys. That doesn’t mean to say that the engineers stand around working out how to make more steam.

In his recent book, (excerpted recently on Co.Design), my old colleague Ken Segall describes Apple’s “Think Different” advertising campaign. But ask yourself: When was the last time Apple did a pure brand ad? Fifteen years ago? Apple went from a challenger to a leader when it stopped focusing on its brand and made its products the heroes of its communications. (“I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” were product ads. Trolls who beg to differ, please scroll down. I will be with you shortly.)

If you promise something clearly, deliver on that promise, and repeat the process, you build strong emotional links to your company with certain consumers. But that’s where the value resides: in my head and your head, and your mother’s head. And the stuff inside my head is my property.

If brands exist at all, they exist in the minds of consumers. I can switch my brand of search engine at a moment’s notice. Bank accounts and makes of automobile are a bit more hassle to discard, but I can still change my mind about them. But that’s not how brand valuation models see them. They act as if our thoughts are a company’s property, like a factory, or a warehouse full of boxes. The brand model, once a wrong but useful way of looking at the world, has become the product. A study by Interbrand and JP Morgan concluded that brands account for about a third of the average public company’s valuation.

After so many years focusing on pure branding, Coca-Cola has embraced design thinking. Guess what? The brand is improving.


Some smart people have begun a backlash against companies that seem to exist to build brands as an end in itself. Management guru Gary Hamel has repeatedly criticized Coca-Cola, accusing it of concentrating on shoring up the Coke brand at the expense of exploring new markets and keeping up with changing consumer tastes. As a result, Coke had to play expensive catch-up games as its market was squeezed by bottled water, new-age herbal drinks, smoothies, energy drinks, and iced tea. But when you’re Coca-Cola, and you’re told that your most valuable property is your brand, then you’re going to concentrate enormous energy into building it–even if that means that you ignore what customers actually want to drink.

In his excellent Obliquity, John Kay explains how the richest people are not those who set out to make money first and foremost, the most profitable companies don’t think too hard about their profits, and great discoveries are often made by people who are looking for something else altogether. Many of the world’s most valuable brands are created by people who don’t ever talk about branding.

So I’d like to propose an exercise where your company bans the word “brand” and the idea of brand building from your meetings for a month. Who knows what you might achieve in that time instead. You might even start to build a great brand.

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Brian Millar

Brian Millar is strategy director at Sense Worldwide. He works with companies like Nike, Vodafone, and SC Johnson to transform their global businesses. Brian began his career as an advertising copywriter at Saatchi and Saatchi London, then moved to Ogilvy, where he worked as a creative director in their London, Paris, and New York offices. His creative work includes IBM’s Solutions for a Small Planet ads, which were voted Campaign of the Decade in Advertising Age magazine. He then became a creative strategist. Recent projects include using behavioral economics to create digital wellness programs for Pfizer and U.S. health insurers. He is always interested to hear from extreme consumers everywhere.

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comment_post_ID); ?> I am a senior citizen who has lived in many areas of the US, the farthest south being Virginia DC area. There are several church plants in the area--some failed, some doing well. One of the sadist failures was a plant in NW Washington near a large Presbyterian Church (I had been an elder in the church, so I knew the area) where changes in church doctrine was driving many away from the PCUSA churches. There were many mature Christians who lived in the area who were very willing to participate and give generously to the church. Its failure was a loss. The pastor and his wife lived in a VA suburb, wanted something that would appeal to their tastes, which included "praise music". There was a professional piano teacher and several people who had sung in choirs in the area. Their suggestions were completely ignored. Forget that there was joyous participation in singing hymns and silence by many for the praise music. The experienced church leaders that were attending were expected to seek the wisdom of the pastor who did not live in the area rather than have any role in leadership. There is another church plant in Northern Virginia that seems to be going the same way. My take: the pastors should get past their high-school and college days culture and get to know and appreciate the people of the community. Do not try to reproduce Intervarsity or Campus Crusade. Hymns are not a sin and "uneducated" (never graduated from college) should not be ignored as uninformed or stupid. People who have served in and/or live in the area are needed in leadership and not just to serve coffee and give. We all need to pray together and serve God in the community in which there is to be a plant. Glenna Hendricks
— Glenna Hendricks
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright

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