Branding is the self-help industry of corporate America. Sure, it may be difficult to admit—perhaps even a bit embarrassing—but let's face it: Both branding and self-help have experienced booming growth over the past decade, seemingly in reaction to rising levels of personal and professional insecurity. Both fields are populated with self-anointed experts. And both seem to follow the same publishing principal: The less there is to say, the more literature there must be.
Like Peter Pan, determined to stitch his own shadow to himself lest it get away, executives are obsessed with branding their companies. It's metastasized to encompass every aspect of business, from logos to supply-chain management, and every nook and cranny of our society. Pest Control magazine implored its readers last year to "make your customers ask for you by your name." The jewelry trade publication Jewelers' Circular Keystone declared, "Branding fever has overtaken the industry." Even the mental health field is getting in the game. Jay Wang, an assistant professor of marketing at Purdue University, has cautioned mental health practitioners to ease up on words like "depression," "anxiety," and "schizophrenia," which "make developing a brand more of a challenge." Mental health services, he says, could benefit from a change to behavioral health services.
In a brilliant twist, the experts have bottled an end and sold it as a means.
You'd have to be crazy—excuse me, having a behavioral health issue—not to realize that branding has gotten out of control. Part of the problem is that everyone's doing it. Bill Schley, author of Why Johnny Can't Brand (Portfolio, November 2005), says branding "is not what you say but what you do." But what a company does is already, well, what it does! To brand, in a corporate sense, is no more a verb than "to gorgeous." A brand is a result, not a tactic. One cannot go about branding an organization or a product or a service; the organization, product, or service is what creates the brand. In a brilliant twist, the experts have bottled an end and sold it as a means.
This obsession owes much to the decline of traditional advertising and marketing. The ad industry has seen its cash cow penned in by a growing demand for accountability (the dreaded return on investment) and starved by an increasingly fractured media landscape. According to the Labor Department, offices have been emptying on Madison Avenue at a rate of 18,000 people a year—accounting for a 14% drop in overall employment since 2000. Executive-search firm Spencer Stuart reports that, as of last year, the average tenure of chief marketing officers at the world's top-100 branded companies was just 23 months, half the life span of their CEOs. Cornered, marketers are stampeding toward the Wild West, a frontier without explicit measurement.
Julie Cottineau spent 14 years in advertising before she crossed over to branding in 1999. Today, she's the executive director of consumer branding at Interbrand, the global consultancy known for its annual brand rankings, and works with Intel, eBay, and Procter & Gamble. "A lot of brands come to us because they want to be understood," she says. "Branding doesn't mean you have to be flashy or loud or scream your value proposition, but you have to know who you are," she says. If phrases like "being understood" and "knowing who you are" sound familiar, it's because such ideas are also the currency of self-help gurus.
Consider that some of the most successful brands do little overt "branding" to achieve their status. Chelsea Milling Co. hasn't changed the packaging on its well-known Jiffy mix boxes in more than 50 years. Though the company has never advertised, it dominates the muffin-mix category with a 55% market share by unit sales. Betty Crocker and Pillsbury have spent decades and untold millions trying to catch up. The $310 million In-N-Out Burger chain, another iconic brand that rarely advertises or speaks to the press, has been putting the rest of the fast-food industry to shame for years. McDonald's spent an estimated $1.5 billion on branding efforts last year, producing little more than one day's worth of sales more per store than In-N-Out. Have you ever met anyone who's had an In-N-Out Burger who doesn't believe it's one of the best burgers they've ever had? Meanwhile, just who, exactly, is really "lovin' it"?
Smaller companies aren't the only ones delivering high-quality products at good value that people love. Disney and Apple spend millions telling people who they are, but why? They're strong brands because they offer distinct products and services. And they've done so for decades. When Disney and Apple have struggled, the root cause has always been that their products weren't as good, service slipped, or they weren't living up to customer expectations. Diverting attention away from business problems by calling any of it by a new name wasn't going to fix it.
Remove the hype, and branding is just commonsense strategy, rebranded. To successfully build a brand, says INSEAD marketing professor Amitava Chattopadhyay, "is to communicate your key value proposition to the key customer segment, and do so in an integrated and consistent way." In other words, Business 101.
Perhaps a lesson from the self-help industry is in order. Although sales of self-help books have doubled in the past four years, mental illness, obesity, drug addiction, and alcoholism are very much on the rise. Is the craziness fueling the literature or vice versa? Comedian George Carlin captured it when he said, "If you're looking for self-help, why would you read a book written by somebody else? That's not self-help, that's help! There's no such thing as self-help. If you did it yourself, you didn't need help." So go ahead, leave your shadow alone. Run a good business, and your brand will follow.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.