If branding is dead, what is alive?

30Apr10

In 1862, Emily Dickinson wrote a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a man she hoped would become her mentor. In it, she asked, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive? The mind is so near itself it cannot see distinctly, and I have none to ask. Should you think it breathed, and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude.”
And Brenda Ueland tells us, in her gift of a book, If You Want to Write, that Tolstoy explained “the mystery of ‘interestingness’ and how it passes from writer to reader. It is an infection. And it is immediate.”

It may seem a bit deranged to begin an article about “branding” with references to Dickinson and Tolstoy. Or least a little too much drama for the average CMO. But I wanted to start out at this high level – at the rpm of language that makes the heart beat faster – to paint a comparison between this and the language of business we’ve come to accept.

Why, when language is capable of communicating ideas, stopping us in our tracks and making us see things in a completely new way, do corporations cling to the same few dead clichés when they talk to their employees and customers or describe what they stand for and why they matter?

“Branding, mission, vision, values, principles, corporate social responsibility, corporate citizenship, environmentally friendly and green” are all tired jargon emptied of real meaning. Or how about these words from the infamous Goldman Sachs in their Business Principles:

“1. Our clients’ interests always come first. Our experience shows that if we serve our clients well, our own success will follow.

2. Our assets are our people, capital and reputation. If any of these is ever diminished, the last is the most difficult to restore. We are dedicated to complying fully with the letter and spirit of the laws, rules and ethical principles that govern us. Our continued success depends upon unswerving adherence to this standard.”
Does corporate language have to be this vacant and moribund? Or generic enough to justify any behavior within it? And given that it is, what life can it create?

Alive, breathe, feeling and infection are the words of nature, not corporate boardrooms. And that, for me, is the simple and obvious truth.

So here’s what nature uses instead of “brand”:  it is identity.

Not the “logo/tag line” kind of identity that comes with an expensive set of rules and guidelines for where and how to use it, but a living identity that is every healthy organization’s sense of itself. It is the internalized values that keep a community together through change and evolution – that compel individuals to belong to one club instead of another. In nature, identity is the filter that every organization uses to interpret the world around it. It is the code for every decision that’s made.

Businesses are living organizations – more, or less successful based on the alignment, clarity and commitment of the people who work in them.
In business, identity begins with a written expression of what a company is, what it stands for and why it matters, expressed in words that are as unique as the company itself.

Every corporation needs a definition of its identity that contains the energy to create a future from it.

Business has proven, unfortunately, that words have the ability to dull our senses and leave us out of the conversation. Poets have proven that words can give us life.

To make a business vital, begin with words, and think very carefully about who you say you are.

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One Response to “If branding is dead, what is alive?”

  1. 1 Gregor

    Brilliant…it’s also the story of the Frog – they (the mechanistic minds) will tell you to if you want to know Frog, pith the Frog, dissect the Frog and you will know Frog… the Romantic (Goethe) wd say “want to know Frog? identify with Frog, be the Frog and the essence of Frog will come alive…” somehow our logistics pealed away our wonder…ouch… thank you thank you…


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