People are constantly asking ‘what is a brand?’ and ‘how a brand is defined’. Most business people and consumers are savvy enough to understand that a brand is not a logo or a trademark, it’s not an ad and it’s not a sign, website or brochure. Instead many people define a brand as every communications touch point and interaction that a consumer has with a company. But where the former list is too restrictive, the later description might be a bit too all encompassing.
Yes, a brand can be seen as every interaction between a customer and a company but that makes it a little hard to quantify and identify, and certainly hard to manage and manipulate.
I’ve also heard a brand described as “what people say about you behind your back.” While I think this is true, after spending a long, intense, and very enjoyable weekend working with the remarkable attendees of our branding seminar it dawned on me that this definition puts all of the brand responsibility in the consumers’ corner and doesn’t leave much room for the company or individual to improve their lot.
An active and interactive weekend of sharing branding tips and techniques with an inquisitive audience got me to consider new ways of defining a brand and monetizing its value.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that a brand is a shortcut to understanding. Like the car buyer who kicks the tires or slams the doors to determine if the auto they are interested in is solid, a brand becomes the shorthand explanation and validation of what a product or service is going to do for the consumer.
That’s why so many people thought that a brand was a logo. After all, the logo serves as the physical manifestation of the brand. And indeed, Louis Vuitton’s “LV,” or Hermes’ “H” tells the consumer and the world what to expect from the product. In the most powerful examples the subliminal message isn’t about the function or utility of the product at all but about the more abstract attributes that the brand provides, such as bestowing status.
In the last few weeks and months our branding agency has seen the direct benefits of this brand power. Thanks to almost weekly appearances with Melissa Francis on FOX Business, the strength of this blog’s distribution (18,000 subscribers and many more thousand “organic” online readers), a cover story in Speaker Magazine, and more, our new business activities have soared, as has our closing ratio on new business. My agent, Katrina Smith, calls this newly acquired brand power “social proof” and I think that makes a lot of sense because it explains how high-quality brand exposure becomes the verification and validation buyers are looking for before they take the risk of a purchase decision.
Thanks to computerization, globalization, enhanced logistics, and multiple sales channels, we live in a world where most products are very good (or at least good enough) and they’re all almost instantly available. All new cars provide more than adequate transportation. All flat screen TVs have great pictures and sound. All new watches keep accurate time. All cruise lines offer food, lodging, and exotic destinations. What sets different products apart and makes them more or less valuable is not the function of the product itself but how well the brand resonates with the consumer and the potential consumer. And the quality of the brand is both transmitted and confirmed through social proof.
A great product or service is not a brand; it’s cost of entry. Which means the moment to start working on your brand and generating social proof is the same as the best time to plant an oak tree in your yard — either twenty years ago or today.
Vincent Van Gogh died broken and penniless. He could not monetize his talent.
Takashi Murakami figured it out. He makes big money selling cartoonish figures as fine art and licensing his outrageous colors for $5,000 limited edition Louis Vuitton handbags. Murakami is so influential that in 2008 he was the only visual artist included in Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” list. That same year Murakami’s sculpture, “My Lonesome Cowboy,” sold for $15.2 million at a Sotheby’s auction.
What’s the difference? Why did one artist reached such incredible levels of public acceptance while the other had to wait until after his death to be hung in the finest museums and collections? If we accept that both Van Gogh and Murakami worked hard at their craft and were blessed with plenty of talent, there must be something more.
In his book Superclass: The Global Power Elite And The World They Are Making, David Jochanan Rothkopf writes, “ten percent of the population owns 85 percent of the world’s wealth. What’s more, data suggests that there is an 80/20 rule within the 80/20 rule: The richest two percent in the world own half of all global wealth.”
What does this have to do with the success or failure of artists? According to Rothkopf, “The superclass does not rule by dictate or direct control, nor does it exercise power through conspiracies or cabals. It has a thumb on the scales and exerts influence…via its most powerful activists or motivated subsets.”
Indeed, Van Gogh did not have any way to exercise power or influence nor did he have the connections that could lead him to commercial success. In contrast, Murakami has his thumb firmly on the scale and has successfully blurred the lines between art and commerce like his predecessors Warhol, Oldenburg and Lichtenstein. Thanks to his power, Murakami counts fashionistas, commercial brands AND art collectors amongst his fans and patrons.
Is that the secret? Is it really as simple as the old line, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know?” Was Van Gogh less successful than Murakami solely because he knew less people?
Malcolm Gladwell calls the folks who know the most people “Connectors.” In The Tipping Point, Gladwell wrote about the importance of these people. “Connectors know lots of people…all of us know someone like this… sprinkled among every walk of life are a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack of making friends and acquaintances. They are Connectors.”
Is Ferrazzi’s last point the secret? Was Van Gogh not able to break out of the pack in his lifetime because he suffered from invisibility? Has Murakami reached the pinnacle of artistic and commercial success because he is the master of harnessing media, both analog and digital, to build his brand? Is it really not what you know but who you know?
In the end does it all come down to networking and marketing? Of course, I would think so because I’m a branding guy and, as the saying goes, “if the only tool you have is a hammer, every solution looks like a nail.” Still, the idealist in me would like to believe that besides talent and hard work there’s more to success than just whom you know.