The Soul of a Brand

Why Marketing Matters to the Future of Society

Having lost a race they should have won, the Democrats are fretting: “our brand is worse than Trump’s!”. If only it were. It’s not. The Democrats have a far graver, deeper problem — one that’s superficially about marketing, but also about society, the future, and how to create it.

They don’t have a brand. Here are my three little tests.

Every organization thinks it has a brand. Here’s a secret: most don’t. In the real world, the first test is: can people sum up what your organization means to them? If they can do it in one word, you have a brand. In three words-ish, you might have a brand. In more, you don’t have a brand.

If I ask the people at the cafe where I’m writing this, “what does Apple mean to you?”, I’ll probably hear words like “design” “beauty” “usefulness” and so on. That’s a brand, a particularly powerful one. Those words, feelings, meanings, are the soul of a brand. If I ask them the same thing about Microsoft, what am I likely to hear? “Bill Gates” “software that doesn’t really work” “I’m not sure, software on my laptop?” “my computer always crashes” and so on. Microsoft doesn’t really have a brand anymore. See the difference? Microsoft has a reputation — not a particularly good one. Apple has a brand. But they’re not nearly the same thing. A brand is a sharp, clear representation of real human benefits. A repuation is just a muddled hazy picture, out of focus and unclear to the human heart.

The second test is: does your brand (if you have one) mean something good or bad? Why one word? That one word is important. It is the human benefit that a brand represents to people. What impact it is going to have on their very real human lives. If I do the test for Whole Foods, I’ll probably hear “health” “vitality”. But I’ll also hear “money” . That is a brand with a mixed effect. It’s presence, it’s human benefit, is diluted, offset.

Good is a subjective concept, isn’t it? So here we mean good in real terms, not just the manipulative terms of perception (“do you think this toothpaste brand will magically fix your love life, just like in the ads!?”: does this organization really have an expected positive impact on people’s lives? An organization, in the final analysis, is just a collective of people acting in concert for some human good. What is that good?

Now let’s apply these tests to the Democrats. Can you tell me in one word what the Democrats stand for? I’d bet you can’t. If I asked the people at this cafe, they’d probably be puzzled. I’d probably hear responses like “they try to win” “they’re good people, but they can’t get the job done” “I liked Obama”, and so on. The Democrats don’t stand for anything at all.

The Democrats don’t have a bad brand. They don’t have a brand. Now we can see the problem a little more clearly.

Let’s do the test for the GOP. If I asked the cafe people, I’d probably hear: “cruelty” “responsibility” “safety” “freedom!!!!111”, and so on. That brings us to my third test: how good is the good in your brand? This one’s tricky. Stay with me now. The perception of good is subjective. The lived experience isn’t. My notion of “freedom” might be your “cruelty” — but the fact is without healthcare, I’m going to suffer terribly. So to develop their brand, the GOP must go into the heart of the question of what really is good — what really benefits people as human beings, not just as abstract ideas. The Democrats, on the other hand, aren’t even at that point — because they don’t have a brand to begin with.

Why not? Why do organization fail to develop brands? They don’t stand for things in people’s hearts because they don’t stand for real human benefits to begin with. Go back to Microsoft and Apple. Apple fights very hard to design beautifully useful things. Those are real human benefits, lived experiences. What benefits does Microsoft fight for? Can you name any? I can’t. The same is true of the Democrats. They are not really fighting for real human benefits, lived experiences. They are fighting, maybe, sometimes. But there is no clear agenda there, and nothing tangible is really delivered as a result. So of course people are left puzzled by what the Democrats mean.

Not everything needs a brand. Take me. How do people know me? “Oh, he’s that asshole who says pretentious shit on Twitter”. LOL. Yup, that’s me. That’s OK. I’m not trying to build a brand. I don’t need one. I’m not trying to be Ezra Klein. I don’t want to be President one day. I enjoy the freedom of not having a brand — it means I can have fun on Twitter and be a real human being instead.

But the Democrats need a brand. For an organization, a group of people engaging in collective action for some human good, that one word means everything — because it is foreshadows how the human heart feels about the human good that organization hopes to create. Those feelings motivate people. They are what inspire and elevate and motivate. Hence, the Democrats consistently struggle with low turnout, apathy, disengagement, and so on. Choose your buzzword. They’re all ways to say: “the Dems don’t have a brand, which means people don’t really feel anything about them, so they don’t act with them.”

Marketing is a necessary evil, I think. And it is a soft evil. It costs us simplicity. We reduce things to meanings. That is no great moral crime. And the upside is that we can engage fully in collective action. Without good marketing, however, we end up like the Democrats. Not a collective of people acting in concert for any human good. Just individuals puzzled by why they fail, again and again, to plant the seeds of goodness in the soil of the human heart.

June 2017