Class is in session

“What’s your worldview?” was the question. Plato, Aristotle or Wittgenstein the possible answers. Not the obvious place to start a lesson on brand building. Especially given the school’s unashamed focus on practical skills and knowledge.

And yet, this is exactly where Andrew Perkins, VCCP’s head of planning chose to start his talk on the different approaches to brand building.

It turns out that three dead philosophers are quite useful at helping surface many of the hidden assumptions that guide our day-to-day work as planners.

“All of the words that we still use as common currency in planning advertising, concepts which even skilled professionals regard as self evident truths… come loaded with the baggage of a particular world view that we might or might not really want”—Paul Feldwick, The Anatomy of Humbug

So back to the question…

What is your worldview?

A Platonic view of brands. Whenever we talk about a brand’s essence, its personality or the people’s relationship with a brand we are adopting a worldview that assumes brands have a reality independent of us. Our job as planners is to grasp them and express them as best we can.

The Plato model tends to be comms driven, because ad folk are closest to “getting” the brand.

An Aristotelian view of brands. Brands are the emergent reality of a whole range of assets, practises, opinions. You are better off measuring them by their effects on behaviour than in themselves. They help people do things. Our job is to protect and build them.

The Aristotle model tends more to total brand experience. You can’t talk about building the brand as X if the retail experience is doing Y.

A Wittgensteinian view of brands. Brands are a language game. They are things for us to talk about (talk with?). Brands are the things that we treat like brands. So Jesus is a brand as is Jermain Defoe.

Within this view, a brand doesn’t so much exist within us or outside of us, it exists between us. A brand isn’t one uniform thing but a multiplicity of possible meanings depending on context and people involved. Our job is to avoid “private language” — a brand that other people can’t make sense of.

The Wittgenstein model leads you to semiotics and cultural thinking — anything that emphasises our shared perceptions.

See? Three dead philosophers. Three worldviews that crop up repeatedly (often unnoticed) within brand thinking.

Personally, I believe in the idea that “all models are wrong, but some are useful”. Models are necessarily a gross oversimplification of reality, but in doing so they make the world manageable. Each of these worldviews can help you or hinder you. The more aware of the worldviews in use the more you can use them to help rather than hinder.

As Andrew said: when you hear people talking about brands, see if you can pigeon hole them as Platonic, Aristotelian or Wittgensteinian brand builders. It will help you develop your worldview awareness.

What are brands?

In an Aristotelian-Wittgensteinian way, Andrew goes on to define brands as a collective fiction that allow shortcuts in decision making. They are made up by all of us. They make things happen. And that thing is generally a bypassing of an otherwise complex decision making process.

Brands are useful for people. They help people sort out a world full of stuff without becoming paralysed by choice. And because our lives are dominated by social relations, we often use markers of social currency to do the sorting.

Brands are useful for organisations. Brands cost organisations money, so that value needs to be recouped. It is recouped via reduced costs to acquire and serve valuable users. These could be customers, but also employees, partners, governments, anyone with whom the brand transacts.

How are they built?

The talk covered two different sources of authority on brand building: Paul Feldwick, the arch-practioner-turned-published-author and Byron Sharp, the the arch-academic-turned-published-author.

Paul Feldwick’s book The Anatomy of Humbug presents six theories of how advertisers think advertising works. Again no model is perfect but they can all be useful.

Selling/Salesmanship is the the oldest and still most dominate model for advertising thinking: rational decision-makers, conscious attention, factual persuasion, “reasons” to believe, the proposition, message recall.

Seduction is the main challenger to the selling model with the idea that advertising is more of a subconscious process for building associations and emotional triggers through symbols and metaphors.

Amongst the other models are Salience/Fame, which draws lots of good work that demonstrates advertising primarily works through “mere publicity” rather than persuasion. All true, but fame is an output not an input. You can’t brief teams with — do anything as long as it makes us famous.

Social Connection/ Fellowship is about being part of something. Fashion brands have always played here, but it’s broader than that. “We are Macmillan” is a brand idea that’s explicitly about being a part of something. Equally, the challenges facing brands like Saga or M&S could be viewed as people not wanting to be part of that thing.

Byron Sharp’s How to Grow Brand’s I and II is rather more dogmatic drawing on decades of empirical research to challenge both the hard-selling rational schools and softer love schools of brand building.

It’s as close to truth that we have in our world, but can also be difficult. We all find ourselves working on client briefs that directly break some if not all of Byron Sharp rules.

Both The Anatomy of Humbug and How Brand’s Grow are books you should read and re-read. They will both reward you for doing so.

The class ended with a rapid fire sequence of 13 brand building approaches to play with them. You will find them, along with the all of these slides from the session, on Slideshare.

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