Branding: Making sense of the philosophical confusion

One of the privileges of the pen is that he who wields it can indulge in all kinds of literary conceits to address even the most prosaic of subjects. Thus, in addressing the subject of 'rebranding branding,' I will open this brief commentary with a quote from the most notorious philosopher of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein: 'There are no philosophical problems. There are only linguistic puzzles.'

One of the privileges of the pen is that he who wields it can indulge in all kinds of literary conceits to address even the most prosaic of subjects. Thus, in addressing the subject of ‘rebranding branding,’ I will open this brief commentary with a quote from the most notorious philosopher of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein: ‘There are no philosophical problems. There are only linguistic puzzles.’

I wonder if Herr Wittgenstein, the acclaimed father of linguistic determinism, could have imagined the far-reaching consequences of this statement. I wonder if he could have sat through even one English class at any post-secondary institution during the last 25 post-modern, post-feminist, post-structuralist years, listening to his professors deconstruct the language of the texts under study instead of just reading them.

This is where branding has landed, smack in a puddle of post-structuralist muck. It has become a bit of a word game, propelled by some to the levels of arcane complexity more commonly associated with quantum physics, dumbed down by others to the hackneyed oversimplification of a handy, dandy acronym.

As an example of the arcane variety, let us examine the model of portfolio management set forth by Sam Hill and Chris Lederer in their recent book, The Infinite Asset. This book is based on the simple enough notion, shared by many leading thinkers in brand management today, that brands are financial assets, and brand portfolios should be managed like investment portfolios. For companies with hundreds of brands to manage, this becomes a very complicated game, requiring complex mental models with which to analyse the relationships among them.

The mental model constructed by Hill and Lederer is dubbed the ‘Brand Portfolio Molecule.’ In flat graphic form, a first-phase ‘BPM’ resembles a molecular diagram commonly found in chemistry books. But after factoring in data related to brand heritage, co-branding, sub-branding, strategic brands, support brands, and ingredient brands, and then quantifying their relative positioning, the boys from Booz-Allen (now partners at Helios Consulting) have created a computerized, three dimensional tinkertoy on steroids.

In fairness to the authors, the thinking behind this dazzling visualization is sound. The steps in the process leading up to the model are, in and of themselves, logical and easy to understand. And I am in love with complex visual puzzles, so the book was a lot of fun to read. But I am challenged to imagine a client sitting through the process of building one of these, much less understanding it once it has been constructed. And then paying for it.

At the simplistic end of the linguistic spectrum, we have all kinds of brand communications firms struggling to differentiate what is essentially the same set of tools by packaging them differently. Generally, the packaging takes the form of some cute metaphor designed to make a memorable impression and demonstrate, by its cleverness, the firm’s ability to create brands for its clients that are just as memorable and clever.

But in trying to differentiate, firms rewrite the language of brand practice to fit with their clever metaphors, thus confusing the client and making all practitioners of branding look a little suspicious due to their inability to agree on the terms of the trade.

Perhaps the most significant contributor to this philosophical confusion is the emergence of the notion of experiential branding. Because a brand can be experienced by any number of people at any point in a company’s value chain, or in the value chains of related brands, the lines between the brand and the operational and infrastructural components of a business have evaporated. Thus the brand and the business are indivisible. The brand is, in effect, everything, because it is affected by everything. What are we supposed to do with that?

As the troubled offspring of a shotgun marriage between information technology and competitive proliferation, the contemporary brand is awash in a sea of undifferentiated experiences. Throw in our collective attention deficit disorder, mix it with a heavy dose of corporate fiscal accountability, and you have the makings of a real Wittgenstinian puzzle. At the risk of oversimplifying, I say let’s agree on the terms of the trade and get on with it.

Will Novosedlik is a brand strategist based in Toronto and can be reached at novosedlik@hotmail.com