“Daddy, What’s a Brand?” and 9 More Awkward Questions for Uncertain Times

In uncertain times like these, let’s get back to basics, shall we? Graham Button investigates 10 questions we all should be asking ourselves.


Naked, without its logo


1. “Daddy, what’s a brand?”
Chiquita, Victoria’s Secret, The GOP, Amnesty International. They all use marketing and invite trust in a distinct belief system. They’re all, to one degree or another, brands. For a brand, nirvana is when your good name is so widely endorsed that it enters the language. “Pass the Kleenex.” “Google it.” But that’s the top of a long and slippery slope–look at Toyota and Tiger Woods. A healthy brand drives up your stock, and vice versa. These are the things we thought we knew. It’s 2010–are they still true?

My brand isn’t working. Better send out an RFP, right?

There’s this idea that advertising or design firms create brands. This is silly. “Just do it” was there in the Nike culture–Wieden + Kennedy was just the reporter that dug it up. Brands tell the truth and when they don’t they fail. Look at New Coke or Cool Britannia–people like you and me decide what Coca-Cola is or isn’t, and in the end it was Britain which re-branded Tony Blair. Recently in Colorado, people took to the streets to protest the possible end of the Frontier Airlines “tail animals”–the core of a brand our company Genesis helped to launch. It wasn’t the graphics they were defending, it was the culture they express. If your brand is under-performing, the first place to look is the mirror.



I’m getting a headache

Brands are high maintenance. Do we even need them any more?

If you need a couple of pills to soothe a headache, shopping for them can just make it worse. It takes acres of supermarket shelf space to house the whole Wikipedia of branded line-extensions. Every conceivable shade of Excedrin, Tylenol, Advil, the generics. Will I ever get back the 10 minutes I waste stumbling round this chemical suburb? That’s not branding, it’s over-branding. At a recent conference on innovation I heard a very smart man called Larry Brilliant say this: “What we’re trying to avoid is 9.5 billion people consuming like Americans.” Do we still need brands? Sure we do, but only ones that give more than they take, ones that add to the quality of life. We’ll need that kind as long as we need companies.

Mick Jagger


A model without fat

Remind me, what are companies for?

After bloodlines, companies are the most popular human organizations on earth. Flags, religions, and political manifestos pale by comparison. It’s no mystery–companies provide a livelihood and the things we need to enjoy life. And for the most part it’s a mutual obligation, with responsibility shared by the employer and the employee. But now customers increasingly set the terms for commerce, and they’re less willing to pay for the overhead of pension funds, union inflexibility, and overpriced marketing. Is a leaner, more agile business model on its way? For every Rolling Stones world tour, a corporation forms to process several revenue streams. Then it gears down. It’s a model without fat. Is there anything to learn from it?

****! What just happened?

Say you’re a company. A good one, maybe even a great one. You’re doing everything right but one day you wake up and everything’s changed. And it isn’t just a brutal recession. It’s three things, all at once. One, new economics–suddenly it’s all about China and India. Two, a new way for everyone to talk–social networks are the new lingua franca. And three, there’s a new voice–the Millennials just showed up in the workforce and politics. No wonder there’s “a gap between market awareness and business readiness,” as the Economist Intelligence Unit puts it.

Brain machine

Send in the engineers

6. Anti-depressants, designer cocktails, and sport sex. How’s a company to compete?
Psychology and computing, the twin marvels of the age. Like two bullet trains passing in the night. Psychology, which promotes delayed gratification and intimacy, brought us self-awareness. Deadwood and Dexter are a quantum leap from The Brady Bunch and I Love Lucy. Computing, which promotes instant gratification and remote connection, brought mass-awareness. Here’s a scenario you hear. He friends her, she IMs him, he emails, they tweet, he texts, they iChat, she calls, they reach altered states with designer cocktails, have sport sex, and never see each other again. Remote Connection 9, Actual Intimacy 0. Are relationships getting more committed or more transactional? And what does that mean for companies?

social networking icons

Here it is, in easy-to-digest icons

We live in The Age Of Everything. Why commit?

There are 80 million Millennials aged 9-28 in the U.S. alone. Half are already in college or the workforce, and the women will be a tornado. They group around shared affinity more than shared nationality, they’re prosumers, not consumers, and they care more about peer recommendation than corporate reputation. They grew up in a world where change is too fast to process, but they know one thing: If you wait a minute or two, something better is sure to be along. They live on an IV drip of real-time connection, and are fiercely interdependent. If you’re a company, failing to consider their preferences would be, in their own vernacular, WOMBAT–a waste of money, brains, and time.


The kids or the parents? Can you be relevant to both?

There are 80 million baby boomers in the U.S. alone–a generation famous for its independence. They have the cash but also a short shelf-life–the first were eligible for Social Security benefits in 2008. They were raised on broadcast and print, planned obsolescence and corporate culture, and U.S. dominance. Brands helped them identify themselves, so they were loyal. The Boomers and their kids the Millennials are on different trajectories. What’s a company to do? A survey by Forrester Research says over 60% of large North American companies now have a voice of the customer (VoC) program. Could be good. As long as nobody believes they can communicate their way out of the dilemma. This isn’t about new media, it’s about re-thinking how you do business.

silver bullet

If only


9. Surely there’s a silver bullet?
The new gods of business were born in the computer age–Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook. They created an industry, but more importantly they rewrote the rules for all the others. But most of the companies that underpin our lives can’t start again–instead they have to evolve, and very quickly. There’s really only one way–to get as close to the paying customer as humanly possible. If there’s a silver bullet, it’s the Net Promoter Score–a research metric, but a breathtakingly intuitive one. It measures not sales, but your customer’s willingness to be your salesman. At our company we have a client who regularly scores in the low 90s (out of 100). We have another which, along with the rest of their industry, scores in the negative teens. These are measures of the market in almost real time.

10. Now that advertising’s dead, why don’t we do something useful with all those clever people? “Well, we’ve solved the problem of community,” futurist Paul Saffo said about the Internet at that same innovation conference. Next to the economics of peer-to-peer recommendation, the old paid-media model looks like a scam. You have to ask yourself how an industry employing so many creative thinkers at such high salaries has, on the whole, gotten away with so much crap for so long. Imagine if all that creative problem-solving power was re-channeled? Meanwhile, we’re in danger of letting 140 characters become the length of our thoughts. You’ve been kind enough to read around 7,000 of mine, so as a gesture of gratitude, I thought I’d leave you with this:



Mick Jagger photo by Aaron Gershfield

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Graham Button is a partner at Genesis, a brand, strategy and
communications consultancy based in Denver. He is a writer from London
who has spent more than 25 years in the advertising world,
working for agencies in Hong Kong, Toronto and finally New York, where
he was a creative director and executive vice president at Grey
Worldwide. Graham has created brand platforms for companies as diverse
as global beverage giant Diageo (managing a stable of brands including
Captain Morgan Rums), Kaiser Permanente Health Plans, Colorado’s
Frontier Airlines, and Asian publisher South China Morning Post
Newspapers. His work has won many awards internationally. Graham still
creates work as a managing partner and creative director on Vail
Resorts’ flagship brands Vail and Beaver Creek. But he is equally at
home in his role as strategist and planner.


About the author

Graham is a founding principal of Bravo Echo, working with leaders of organizations to evolve their business through brand, strategy and commuications. “We find the truth behind the noise, distill insight from human patterns, and build narrative that changes behavior.” He is a writer from London who spent 20 years in the advertising world, at agencies in Hong Kong, Toronto, and finally New York, where he was an Executive Vice President at Grey Worldwide