Branding might be everywhere, but it's as simple as it ever was

Beware those trying to over-complicate 'branding', writes the man who first coined the term.

Brands and branding are central to our lives today.

It’s not just Millennials who are brand-obsessed: we now have professors of branding at our business schools, the Royal Family is referred to as a brand, so is Iceland (the country, that is) and also the BBC.

Design consultancies are now branding consultants, trademark attorneys are "protectors of your brand" and advertising agencies don’t simply claim to create great advertising – they are the ultimate brand custodians.

Business is also intensely focused on brands and these are recognised as a company’s core assets, not just by the marketers, but also by the board, the chief executive, the financial director – even the HR team. To work properly, brands must permeate the organisation from top to bottom.

When I set up Interbrand in London in 1974, it was initially as a naming agency. We quickly added a trademark law function – what good is a dishy new name if it’s not available and protectable? Graphic design and market research capabilities soon followed.

Incredibly, until the end of the 80s the word "brand" was only in very limited use and the word branding didn't exist at all until I coined it when I published my first ever book on the subject in 1985, Branding: A key marketing tool.

This seems unbelievable now in a world dominated by brands and branding, but back in the 80s that was the truth.

Having witnessed the evolution of branding, and seeing how far it has come, allows me to be subjective about its importance today. What can be drawn from my experiences that is relevant to today's savvy entrepreneur or marketer?

Our view of a brand 25 years ago was quite prosaic and utilitarian. We viewed it as a business asset whose purpose was to enhance the earnings of the brand owner.

We saw a brand as a product or service, or business, which had developed a personality that was appealing to consumers.

This is still mainly true today, but with the development of branding has come a great deal of over-elaboration. Much of what is being offered by branding consultants today seems to be deliberately over-complicated.

Every consultant wants their own matrix, proprietary methodology or analytical tool.

Similarly, every business school throughout the world now seems to have a resident professor who has built their reputation on constructing an obscure branding hypothesis, which they have branded as their own.

The purpose of consulting is to solve a client's problems. A good consultant makes the complicated simple, not the simple complicated, but this principle often seems to be ignored and foolishly, clients often fall for it.

Too many clients seem to think that if they don't understand a technique or presentation, it must be really good. So beware the overcomplicated!

If you don't understand what you are being sold, it's probably the other side's fault, not yours.

A further trend, which I dislike, is to view branding as a kind of religious or life-enhancing process. The argument goes that brands add to the texture of everyone's life.

They permeate our souls in some way and thus have a mystical significance. It amazes me that brands, things developed to benefit their owners, have acquired such reverence.

In practice, branding's reach has expanded greatly over the last quarter century, but the fundamentals have not changed much at all; and a great deal of the increased sophistication of the brander's art is illusory.

Marketing people are good at inventing flashy new words and phrases to describe the old and familiar.

Just remember that a brand is a differentiated product or service, or company, with a distinct persona. Treat it carefully and appropriately in order to reflect and enhance this persona.

Even if you develop the most wonderful brand in the world, you may still suffer business failure.

On its own, a brand can never guarantee business success; conversely, without a brand, business success may prove impossible.

John Murphy is the founder of Interbrand and the author of Brandfather: The man who invented branding.

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