Brands are as ubiquitous as human beings. But, does a brand have a code of conduct or values? Can it give you its word? Then, how can you trust a brand? A brand is nothing but a disembodied voice, seductive in delivery, aiming to burn value in your retinas.
One of the most important assets a company has is its brand. That brand is not just the typographical or graphical representation of a company’s identity. When a brand is unknown, it’s just another name, another logo, another pretty image. But once known beyond its initial boundaries, a brand has the potential to become an icon. People recognize the brand and ultimately identify with it.
Some brands have accomplished this by becoming omnipresent. Think Target, Sony, AT&T, Staples, Dell. We have become familiar with them by sheer repetition and repeat interaction with them. We develop a level of trust in those brands to the point that our purchasing decisions become fast and reactive.
However, there’s a movement out there that seems designed to confuse entrepreneurs and customers alike. It’s a the conflation of a personal trait with an umbrella symbol. I am referring to reputation. Having a good reputation is a trait of good character, of moral standing in society. But now branding is being touted as a synonym of, and ultimately a replacement for, reputation. We might want to take a step back and look at what’s going on.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Branding is important. It lends identity to a product line. According to marketers, branding is the idea that communicates value to potential customers about your product or service. In our highly competitive marketplace, however, brands point to a company, product or service in a spectrum of reliability with its attendant consequences. If a product is reliable, then you’ll likely buy it or use it again. Hence, a brand is as strong as the virtues of the product or service it represents.
But, can individuals be considered brands themselves? Why? Some celebrities may be considered “brands” in the sense that they are widely known to multiple audiences and that they offer a reliable product —their artistic performance. People like Beyoncé, Pink, Lady GaGa and Madonna can be considered brands because they stand beyond the universe of commodities. Movies, software applications and other objects of consumption can also become brands. For example, a Madonna song is unique; a Beyoncé album is distinct in quality and experience. That’s another concept of modern branding: experience, which I suspect is meant to mimic what we experience in human relationships.
But branding belongs to things, reputation to persons. After all, a product is made by someone, a service is provided by someone. A person is not a thing to be branded because an individual cannot be reduced to just the value his products or services can offer. Doing so exposes the individual to become a commodity, just like any other consumable.
If we go back to the concept of reputation, we may be surprised at the freshness of this old idea. We build relationships with other human beings based on trust and reputation. The old word-of-mouth concept is a good example of relying on a provider’s reputation to do business with them. On the other hand, designating a person as a brand is dehumanizing and reduces the individual to a dollar amount and a material experience.
Consider cell phone brands such as Apple, Samsung, Nokia and Blackberry. Are they good brands? Sure. Right now, however, two of these brands are undergoing radical changes (Nokia and Blackberry). Nokia and RIM, the Blackberry maker, have been losing market share to Android and Apple competitors. Are they still good brands? Sure, but here’s the difference: their brand and reputation are good, but it’s their experience that is undergoing tectonic shifts. Experience is dependent on reputation, not so much as on brand.
Another reason branding as a misnomer for reputation for individuals —especially small businesses or independent professionals— is problematic is this: branding promises to make you ubiquitous and famous. This may be true of performers such as actors, singers, musicians, etc. who succeed in representing the zeitgeist and having their voices heard and enjoyed by millions. But most small businesses will be happy to fetch a slice of their local or regional market. Some of these businesses will want to grow exponentially and organically, but branding alone will not take them there.
For independent contractors and small businesses, the old standard is true: build on word of mouth and a reputation for quality service and excellent product. How you call your business is your own decision, and you will definitely need marketing help to assert yourself as a reputable business with a solid brand, a recognizable name. But let’s not confuse business growth with ego growth.
In an increasingly competitive and sometimes litigious society, going back to the basics —build your reputation by keeping your promises, never go back on your word and keep a code of honor— is not just a nice idea but it makes good business sense. A solid brand may have quantifiable value, but a good reputation is priceless.