what is a brand?

There is little doubt that brands have become extremely powerful. But as their power is often seen in a negative light, this isn’t necessar...

There is little doubt that brands have become extremely powerful. But as their power is often seen in a negative light, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. If you ask me, however, in an ideal world such power presents a glorious opportunity to do something for the good, for the great a subject I’ll examine in more detail later in the post. But acknowledging how powerful brands have become also throws up a number of questions: is our obsession with brands the result of a cheap trick? Is a brand a set of cognitive associations linked to something or someone, or is it just a physical object? Is there anywhere in the world that has not been infiltrated by the brand?

So many questions, so little time.

what is a brand

There are brands and there are products: this is the defining line. A brand is something that we have an emotional connection with. It may be completely fake and manufactured, but we nevertheless experience some kind of bond. This is human programming at its best. It takes a certain something to evoke in a prospective consumer a sudden feeling of connection when he or she is stood in the supermarket at 7.30 p.m. after a hard day’s work, hungry as a horse, looking for something half-decent to chow but faced with a shelf of identical brands. ‘Which ready meal do I buy?’ The brand that pulls at our heartstrings like a puppy at the pound is the brand that will get our money. Ker-ching!

The way I see it is that because everything in the cultural world is constantly changing, brands have to adapt to these changes in order to remain relevant. This dynamic relationship to culture, however, is something that the world of brands rarely celebrates. For brands to admit that what really makes them attractive is all the stuff that has rubbed off on to them from the world of culture is way too honest, way to close to the knuckle. But this is what makes a successful brand story stand out. A company creates a product a sneaker, say but the real gravity and magnetism of that product is created by the culture that embraces it. In other words, it’s not the brand that made the sneaker cool, but culture. This fact is a game changer, but once the brand story becomes the focus of all communications, nothing can get in its way, regardless of the real story, regardless of the truth.

So let’s forget the mirages that advertising agencies and marketing departments build around brands. The global rise of many brands is indelibly linked to underground cultural phenomena, and this is the real juice, the real deal. It’s also the kind of thing that gets me out of bed each day. But it’s strange how global brands often behave as though they are made of kryptonite one moment and glass the next – saturating the media one day and then censoring it twenty-four hours later if anyone has anything to say that isn’t 100 per cent complimentary. One thing, however, is certain: the way in which brands acquire their market share is never by simply being the best, as all products out there are pretty much identical. To quote Malcolm X remixing Jean-Paul Sartre, they do it ‘by any means necessary’.

In one way or another we are all brands, and behave as such. From the current crop of hipsters running around the planet to the yummy mummies of Stoke Newington, Westchester and Prenzlauer Berg, we are all self-branded by the choices we make everyday – by the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and so on. And what we display in public we extend into the digital realm via our social-media channels. I think a lot of us are totally unaware of this fact, and so our ‘brand’ is pretty shite: photos of getting wasted, misbehaving, hating/trolling, duck-faces, trying to look ‘sexy’, wearing something hideous, driving an expensive yet ridiculous-looking car all of which damages ‘brand me’. Image, after all, is everything, and the power of the brand is controlled by its story, its choices and its image. The key ingredient in these three elements is authenticity. If it’s an authentic choice then it will work for the brand and it will work for us.

So here is my definition: a brand is a thing or a person or a company that has got some kind of media traction and has managed (by hook or by crook) to get itself on the public radar and into our heads. The first rule for any brand is that we all have to know about it; we have to be aware that it exists, as only then can it begin to build its story deep within our subconscious. The second rule is that it has to offer something in return (apart from the actual product) for either our money or our loyalty. This is where it gets interesting. Thanks to the digital revolution, cultural currency has become almost as important as the regular, physical, common or garden dollar or pound, because it all helps to drive the story of the product the all important backstory into the mind of the consumer.

As we all know, most mobile phones last a couple of years before they slow down or stop working altogether (that’s if you haven’t already broken it) a great example of planned obsolescence in full effect. In most cases it’s one small part of the phone that has actually broken, but because of the way in which they’re designed, you can’t just swap that part for a new one. Until now, that is. The Phoneblok is a mobile phone designed around a system of detachable components, or ‘bloks’, connected to a solid base that locks them all together. If a certain blok breaks, you simply replace it; and if the phone is slowing down, you can upgrade the processor for a faster one. All this revolves around the Blokstore, a digital hub where you can buy, sell, read reviews, get information or just purchase a ready assembled phone. The tagline is ‘A Phone Worth Keeping’.

The inventor of the Phoneblok is a chap called Dave Hakkens, a designer from the Netherlands whose goal is to make the world a better place by making things that can be fixed and not just thrown away better and sustainable things. He started this quest when his beloved digital camera stopped working. After trying to fix it himself, he discovered that the one part he needed was not available anywhere. Dave was also acutely aware of waste streams (the total flow of waste from manufacture to disposal) generated by the mobile-phone industry, so he started working on a phone that could be easily fixed and would not contribute to these waste streams. Phonebloks was born, and has since gathered considerable digital momentum – a social-media reach of more than 380 million people. The first major company to get on board was Motorola. The Google owned telecommunications giant had been working on its own modular phone, and approached Phonebloks asking if it could get involved. As Dave wants Phonebloks to become a reality, he agreed, but with the strict condition that the consumer must always be kept in the loop, so that the project can be developed in the open. To me, Phonebloks represents an authentic link between producer and consumer. This is something that really needs to be focused on how brands can genuinely connect with the consumer. Motorola’s involvement with Phonebloks tells me that the once blinkered eyes of the tech giants are slowly beginning to open.

Why Phonebloks works:

  • The product fills a technological need.
  • It comes from an honest place no planned obsolescence.
  • It is ecologically sound no excess waste.
  • The creators and the brand are very accessible.
  • It has a positive identity.

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Thought Leadership Zen: what is a brand?
what is a brand?
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