... where have all the [brand] cowboys gone?

 

telosity_origin.jpgThis is the first of 5 posts that will explore the dimensions of “Identity as Brand” in the model you see here. This week, we will explore why a shift in the source of a brand’s identity (what we call Origin) has reshaped the way companies are branded and suggests a whole new set of questions that marketers and brand stewards must ask.

 

I visit his office regularly, as I have done for the many years I have been his consultant. We have worked together as colleagues and collaborators in building good businesses. I notice it most times I am there: a long slender iron handle with a whimsical filigree of letters at the end. With careful examination I can just make out the shape of the letters “M” and “O” separated by an ampersand. That object, each time I see it, sends the same image flickering across my imagination, and immediately I am transported to the dusty, ever-expanding frontier of yesteryear. Cattle bellow and rugged cowboys shout to direct the herd. Horses’ hooves tear at the prairie as they dart to and fro among the young calves. Their riders, reins in hand or anchored in gritted teeth, hurtle through the swirling, heaving throng. Determination tangles with fear— the roundup is under way.

Hats fly, ropes twirl, and frightened, disoriented calves are brought close to glowing embers. The fiery coals heat the metal symbols of ownership—“LC” for Lonesome Creek, a misshapen fletch for the Broken Arrow Ranch, or a crooked “C” for Leonard Carter—and the sweat-soaked, weathered arm of a cowboy makes an indelible mark on a fresh hide with the glowing end of a slender iron rod.

This used to be the way of branding not just on the western frontier but also among the companies that composed the thundering herd of business. Branding declared ownership and proprietorship. Branding suggested a future dictated by the owner, and it was evidence of control. The assumption was that a brand could simply be fashioned and applied (by a blacksmith and cowboy, or a marketing and advertising agency) and that image would be understood and respected. This way of things worked, as was the case with Kodak, whose brand position, led by George Eastman’s desire to make photography accessible, was constructed around the concept “you push the button, we do the rest” which led to the highly successful and recognizable “easy-capture” brand identity. The company claimed this position as its external identity and built an empire around it. But consumers also took ownership of that identity and came to define its limits and direction.

It is not news to point out that a revolution has swept across the plains. A brand is no longer a claimed identity created or constructed from within and asserted by way of promise and delivery to those outside. It is now a bestowed identity that is shaped and granted by those outside as much as those inside. This movement towards a socially licensed brand has re-forged the mechanics of branding. Brands must originate from real identity, like us.People cannot form an identity in isolation. We discover our identity through appreciating our intrinsic uniqueness in the context of the relationships we have. In a personal world, where brands and individuals engage in one-to-one dialog, this is now the case for brands, too. Brand has become something that a company discovers (and will discover again and again) as it relates to others, reconciling its characteristics with that which other people believe about and desire from it.

Today, a brand originates in relationship to others, and therefore brand identity is bestowed. TWEET THAT!

And yet, in much of the language of marketing, the old frontier attitudes of possession and control still inform our notions of branding. Brand messaging is outbound, seeks reach, scores impressions, creates demand, builds awareness, and reaches toward a target audience. That is the language of heedless individualism. We operate as though a brand can still be fashioned and then broadcast to a neatly targeted constituency. We still seem to believe that the owner’s mark, cleverly bullhorned over the din of digital media to the far corners of communication, is what lays claim to an identity. This is no longer true, and we need to learn that quickly in order to survive.

Returning to the dust-swept prairie, unnoticed by the well-muscled cowboys, a throng of people have gathered round the flickering heap of embers. The rugged cowboys of days gone by have had to give way to the crush of townspeople elbowing themselves to within reach of the flames. No one paid them much mind before. They were irrelevant except at the moment when they would, currency in hand, call upon the butcher for beef. But now they are filtering into the once exclusive camp, keen to make their own marks upon the hides of the calves under heel. They’re armed with spray cans, marker pens and scissors, with which they reshape the hides to reflect designs and images they prefer, and show them to friends who mimic their creativity. Soon, the hallowed marks of branded ownership are unrecognizable, and the real meaning of the symbols of brand become known only to the communities they represent. This is the new exercise of branding, and in a hyper-branded world, influence over brand has been democratized.

What will be necessary to survive on the new frontier of branding is a change in attitude and expectations, which will be discovered by asking questions like these:

  • To whom does our brand belong? From where does it originate?

  • What is the source of our company’s identity, from both insiders and outsiders?

  • Does our brand reflect the real identity of our company?

  • Who are the people/groups shaping our identity and brand today, and how well do we know them? How do their beliefs and intentions about us reflect our identity?

 

*Previously published at www.ogilvydo.com on August 8, 2014 

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