Branding is just like life

By Danny Altman
April 17, 2009
Reading Time: 3 minutes
Filed under Branding
Branding and Naming
Warning: We don’t know exactly where this is going, but you’re welcome to come along for the ride. Photo: Danny Altman. Art: Bruce McIntosh.

I would like to write about branding in a way that has not been attempted so far. After many years of helping companies create and breathe life into their brands, I have a confession to make. I don’t get it either. My brain has a block against abstract concepts, and branding is one of those subjects that can make you dizzy if you try to think about it too hard.

And all the books on branding with their gimmicks, formulas and buzzwords don’t seem to help. They offer momentary flashes of insight, but nothing really satisfying. And hearing about other people’s success stories can be enlightening or intimidating, depending on what kind of mood you’re in.

The branding work we have done at A Hundred Monkeys has been driven by breaking out of the box called “branding.” Our feeling is that branding is actually a part of life and that the easiest way to understand it is to forget about all the business branding theories and jargon that are clogging up your brain and think about it in much more human terms.

In fact, we would like to put a ridiculously simple proposition on the table. The idea is that, from a branding perspective, companies are a lot like people. Let the idea roll around for a while. Companies can have very human qualities. But for some reason we keep our thoughts about companies and our thoughts about people in very different parts of our brain.

We are all walking around with an enormous onboard database of very practical information about how people behave. Can we take a little of what we know about people and apply it to branding in a systematic way?

Here are a few things that I know about people from my walks around the neighborhood. If I say hello, people will generally say hello back. If they are walking fast, they do not want to engage in conversation. If we know each other’s name it establishes a certain level of intimacy. If they have a dog who jumps on me they usually think that is okay. If they are running, I can usually get a nod out of them. If not, they are a serious runner. If they are on a bike, they usually do or say something to let me know they are not the enemy.

I could go on like this for a long time. The point is that we are all students of human behavior. And we are all walking around with a staggering amount of information about what makes people tick and how to get what we want and how to give other people what they want.

So the question is, how do we access this wealth of information to think about branding a product or a company? How do we use it? What can it tell us about finding the people we want to reach and figuring out what to say to them and how to behave around them?

I’m going to start with what I will call the first rule of human behavior, which is, know yourself. If you don’t know who you are and why you’re here and what’s important to you, then who does? In the same way, knowing yourself is probably the core prerequisite to having a brand. Who are you as a company? What’s your philosophy? What will always be true about your business? This is the part that many companies like to skip over because philosophy is too introspective a word for the world of business. But Nike has a philosophy. Ben & Jerry’s has a philosophy. IBM has a philosophy.

It’s about doing some hard thinking about who you are as a business. And the best way to think about it is to forget for a little while that you are a business, and have a serious conversation with yourself about the important stuff. Once you do that, you’ll find it a lot easier to have that conversation with someone else.