Prword Smith

One Step Beyond…

It’s that time of year and clearing out files on the PC always throws up a few surprises. One of them was a book review I was asked to write back in late 2003 on “Beyond Branding” by Thom Braun of Unilever’s Marketing Academy (published by Kogan, 2004). So why post an old review of an even older book?

Well, four reasons:

1. The theses promoted by the book are still highly relevant. In fact, the ideas put forward by the authors have clearly influenced brand positioning in the intervening three years

2. There is a reference to Christmas (ok, so that’s not really a reason)

3. It was finding a blogger’s review of a book a couple of years ago which led to my own personal epiphany about the influence of blogs and the access they would provide to a collective wisdom (duh)

4. It struck me that everything in communications has to be “Beyond [insert Zetigeist]” and these authors, to my knowledge, seem to have been the first to use it in this context. So worth giving them credit for that

So what of the book and its thesis?

The book’s authors understood authenticity would become important. Perhaps they didn’t realise just how right they would be and for what reasons. In the last three years: Linda Stone’s prediction of a world of ‘continuous partial attention’ has continued to prove itself achingly true; the Edelman Trust Barometer saw the rise in ‘a person like myself’ as a valued and trusted source of information. And the blogoshere exploded, giving ‘people like me’ access to the opinions of millions of other ‘people like me’. These, and other trends, are forcing companies to develop a new dialogue for their brands. One that connects with consumers as people who identify with a point-of-view, not just a product. One that goes beyond (oops) the standard narrative of features, advantages and benefits and taps successfully into the real-world concerns of large groups of society.

Here’s the review wot I wrote.

“Beyond Branding”

This is an unusual book. It’s a passionate book (at least by the standards of most of the dreary tomes which line the shelves of airport lounges being thumbed by weary business travellers looking for inspiration). It is written by a group of self-styled activist consultants and writers who call themselves ‘The Medinge Group’. It is not a diatribe against brands, but against the increasingly hollow outcomes of conventional branding processes. This is also an inspiring book. It’s a plea for a new approach – one that does not just put the heart back into brand planning but puts the brand back at the heart of the organisation.

Of the twelve authors, perhaps Denzil Myers says it best: ‘The authors of this book are not out to save brands and branding in their contemporary form. In fact, we think the current system is so broken, so corrupt, so oblivious to real human values…’. and so he goes on. John Moore also rails against the unreality of brands, quoting Woody Allen’s ambition as a pastiche of marketing: ‘To forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. And then see if I can get them mass-produced in plastic.’

Much of the group’s diagnosis can be found elsewhere. There is much in here on disconnection between marketing and business function; the disconnection between advertising and truth; the disconnection between stakeholders needs and those of fund managers who supposedly represent shareholders; the disconnection between organisations’ need for control, and people’s need for self-determination.

Research carried out by many other organisations, including Edelman, shows that the trust which consumers have in brands (products, organisations and institutions) is on the wane. In this context only brands which develop a new sense of authenticity, only those who can reconnect with consumers in a way that recognises declining levels of trust, will be sustainable.

But do these prematurely grumpy old men see a way forward? Is there a right path for brands? Yes. As Tim Kitchin puts it, “Brand relevance does what it says on the tin. By ensuring that the values that drive the brand are those that best unite stakeholders….organisations ensure that they stay relevant…”. If the authors are right, the next decade or two should be good times for marketers who choose to trade in truth and not fantasy. And a stimulating time for the communications industry which must help shape these new brand promises in the minds of consumers.

I urge you to read the book. You won’t agree with some of it. But that’s not the point. It’s fresh thinking which may just help you think differently about the brands in your care. The best brands will be for ever, not just for Christmas.

– ends –

The authors have a site up (http://www.beyond-branding.com/book.htm) which is worth a look.

Happy New Year All

P.S. Sorry to those of you who are old enough to have the old Madness tune bouncing around inside their heads now.

P.P.S. If people are looking for a reason why I have not blogged for a while, lets call it bloggers block for the moment. More on that later.

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