Brands are Bull

At 11:30pm on April 22, 1978 Saturday Night Live opened with Paul Schaffer, made up to look like music promoter Don Kirshner (whose show ran in most markets right after SNL). What followed was a lesson in branding that we’re still learning. Here’s  how it looks in the show’s transcript (sorry, the original isn’t on YouTube):

Don Kirshner…..Paul Shaffer
Jake Blues…..John Belushi
Elwood Blues…..Dan Aykroyd

[ open on Don Kirschner ]

Don Kirschner: I’m Don Kirschner, and welcome to “Rock Concert”. In 1969, Marshall Checkers, of the legendary Checkers Records, called me on a new blues act that had been playing in a small, funky club on Chicago’s South Side. Today, with the help of Jerry Erdegan, and the staff of Pacific Records, their manager, Morey Daniels, and with the support of fellow artists Curtis Selgado and the Cray Band, they are no longer an authentic blues act, but have managed to become a viable commercial product. So now, let’s join “Joliet” Jake and his silent brother Elwood — The Blues Brothers.

[ pan down and dissolve to Jake and Elwood Blues, the Blues Brothers, performing on the stage below ]

That was the first the world saw of the Blues Brothers: two actors who parlayed ironic comedy into a successful movie, in which the layers of irony piled higher and higher. All those layers speak volumes about “branding” — the reality, not the buzzword. What they say (or can’t un-say) is that the Blues Brothers are a commercial product.

Coming off my flight to London the other day I was caught in the crunch to leave the plane, in that spot near the door where the two aisles squeeze into one for the jetway. There I found myself in the passing company of two passengers talking about “personal brands” and how “social media” is good for them. I wanted to say “brands are boring” to them, but decided to blog about it instead. Hence the post by that title at the last link.

Since then I’ve been pointed to various writers and posts that put nice paint jobs on the cattle-burning practice that “branding” was originally — and still, in spite of all marketing spin to the contrary, remains. This here cartoon for example, which got me boiling again.

So I decided to have another go at it, partly because I don’t want the topic to die (until “branding” is exposed for the shallow thing it too often is), and partly because I just read Brand Rehab, the Schupeter column in the April 10, 2010 issue of The Economist. Like too much of everything else, it’s about Tiger Woods. But, being the Economist, it’s about the money, which always focuses matters. For example,

Tiger Woods’s penchant for cocktail waitresses and porn actresses ended up costing an astonishing amount of money: two economists at the University of California, Davis, have calculated that his biggest corporate sponsors, such as Nike and Gatorade, saw as much as $12 billion wiped off the value of their shares in the wake of the scandal.

That’s twelve billion. With a B.

One company that took a huge hit, of course, was Accenture. Dig Guanabee’s Worst Tiger Woods Accenture Ads for a reminder of what all of us heavy travelers saw printed on back-lit plexiglass displays in airport concourses over the years leading up to revelations about Tiger’s personal life, after which they all disappeared. (Except, of course, on the Web.) One sample:

Accenture failed here by assuming that Tiger wasn’t human. Which is close enough to true, if you’re just looking at Tiger as a golfer. The man is not only the closest any golfer has ever come to walking robotics, but his whole golf persona has always been remarkably mechanical as well.

Turn a person into a brand, and what do you get? Something incomplete at best, and fake at worst. Borrow that human brand to represent your company, and you take some risks. Your branded celebrity might actually be a fine human being. Or they might be a philandering scumbag. Either way, the brand is a paint job. It’s not real except in the commercial dimension, and only in a narrow way even there.

The only advertiser that has stuck with Tiger since the bimbo bombs started going off is another landmark brand: Nike. The latest Nike/Tiger ad features the golfer’s sad face, staring at the camera, while the voice of his dead father speaks. “I want to find out what your thinking was,” Earl Woods says.”I want to find out what your feelings are. And did you learn anything.” Well, one thing the rest of us learned was that Tiger was with one of his mistresses on the night he got word that his father had died.

Nike, the brand, famously supports its sponsored athletes because the company is about athletes and athletics. Which is all fine. What matters is what the athletes do on the field, on the court, on the golf course. Sure. But what matters more is what these companies actually do.

Here in Reality, companies buy Accenture’s services. Individuals buy Nike’s shoes. None of what customers buy from either company gets an ounce of substantive worth from Tiger Woods, or from anything those companies do with their “branding” strategies, no matter how much those strategies serve to help sales and stock prices.

We live in an age when we can kick tires hard. Accenture’s and Nike’s tires are not Tiger Woods. And Tiger Woods, even if he’s long been a lying sack of shit, isn’t a tire either. He’s a human being, and that’s what makes him interesting. Not what his golf game says about companies that pay him.

In his comment below my Brands are boring post, Chris Carfi pointed to this post on BlogHer in which Yvonne, a blogger there, unloaded on people who insist she act like a blogging brand, rather than the human being she’s been all along:

Blogging as I know it has changed.

Woman with Mouth Stitched Shut

And I just can’t keep up. Because this blog isn’t a business. My blog is personal.

I just want to keep writing about my life. About my kids. About my struggles with health and weight and body image. I just want to write.

I feel like a complete misfit in blogging, which is so weird because I’ve been doing this since 2002 and what the hell?

Blogging is a business! Build your brand! YOUR BRAAANNNNNDDDD!

There’s no denying that I’ve been given some pretty amazing opportunities through blogging. (Interviewing the cast of New Adventures of Old Christine. Meeting Tony Hawk.) And that still amazes me. But that’s not WHY I do it. That will never be why I do it.

And suddenly, it feel like — if that’s not why I’m doing it, why even bother?

I used to be able to sit down and write a post about the most trivial things — like my trip to the doctor’s office yesterday, for example — hit publish, enjoy the comments and move on to the next post. Now I doubt every post. “This isn’t good enough.” “No one will care about that.” “People are writing about HEALTH CARE REFORM AND YOU’RE WRITING ABOUT PEEING WHILE YOU SNEEZE YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG.”

I also used to be able to write about important things, like depression or body image and feel safe. Feel like it mattered. Like by writing my story I was helping people and that people were helping me by reading, by sharing their stories. I know that is still true, but sometimes? I feel like the stories aren’t being heard because we’re all too busy about traffic and page views and twitter followers and OUR BRRRANNND.

And that’s fine! It’s wonderful that women are finding success because of their blogs — I mean it, it makes me so proud. But also? A little sad. Sad that those of us who are just here for the writing, for the stories, for the good content are feeling so out of place and irrelevant.

I don’t even know where I’m going with this anymore other than to say I’m struggling with blogging right now and I hope that by writing this out I will be able to make some sort of peace with it all and stop over thinking this shit and JUST START WRITING AGAIN BECAUSE I MOTHER FUCKING LOVE TO WRITE.

Amen, sister.

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30 Responses to Brands are Bull

  1. Esme Vos says:


    Companies like Nike, as well as ad agencies, brand consultancies and marketing people, push the “Brand Called You” idea (see the 1997 article by Tom Peters: ) because it allows firms to sell products based upon the premise that star athletes, models, and actors are role models for us, and if they are our role models, we will want to be like them (Be Like Mike!) and want to buy the products they endorse.

    The celebrities, in turn, perpetuate this myth because it allows them to make lots of money outside their main activity (sports, acting, modeling).

    This works if you accept the premise that celebrities are in fact role models. I don’t know when this began to happen – looking to athletes as role models but I suspect it’s around the time when products like shoes became commodities (cheaply made in Asia by poorly paid workers). So the shoe companies had to find some way to make a cheap shoe a desirable, high end product with moral values (hard work, success) attached to it.

    I never considered athletes to be role models. Why should a guy who can swing a golf club (or a tennis racket) better than anyone else be a role model for my moral and ethical judgements? What qualifies him to be my role model? He can be my role model for tennis and golf, but that’s it.

    What happened to the days when people encouraged their children to look up, not to athletes like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, but to individuals who really did something for humanity and sacrificed their comfortable lives to bring justice and freedom (for example, Aung San Suu Kyi)? What happened to feeling inspired by philosophers like Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir who changed in a fundamental way how we look at the world and devoted their lives to answering the most difficult questions about freedom, oppression, violence.

    I miss the good old days of bad boy athletes like Ilie Nastase and all those 1970s race car drivers who drank too much, did too many drugs, went through dozens of mistresses and drove too fast. They did not pretend to be anything else.

    Brand Called You is utterly insulting and demeaning. As if my humanity could be packaged and stamped like a brand – an object designed for commerce. No wonder people feel like objects to be used, manipulated and tossed away when no longer needed.

    We don’t even get the benefit of recycling!

  2. Tim Allan says:

    As a designer, not an advertiser, the issue of ‘brands’ – infact, the categorical misunderstanding that people have about branding in a professional capacity always jarred.

    Many times, I would have to try and reign in misunderstandings, starting from the small ‘your logo isnt your brand – its just your logo’ to the large, with grandiose statements about pilfered getty stock imagery about how ‘this visual speaks volumes about our brand’.

    But really, I never quite resolved the artifice that was being presented here, that organisation can somehow be imbued with attributes and qualities. This anthropomorphism seemed a wasted effort in the end, and I always thought that making something interesting, and useful for your customers was a much better spend in terms of time and money.

    Ironically, it would be a much better ‘brand building’ exercise, but coming up with innovative concepts like that are hard, and advertising is too focused on message and not enough on utility.

  3. Well, Esme Vos, some examples of use of thinkers to sell products is out there, indeed (e.g. this and this), yet those do not seem to produce a great result. They definitely were moving and great Ads, but, personally, thank god “only” athlete and artist are nowadays popular and used for branding: would you like to see Sartre advertising a product – an anti-nausea pill? I think there still is little respect for such thinkers – and I hope it will last. For example, the second example I quoted here is the famous “Think Different” Ad by Apple. It was a great piece of work, and I still think it was one of the best Ad I ever seen. Apple did a great job with that, and I still am moved when I watch it. Nonetheless, it is too wrong that Apple is turning out to be so proprietary about its products and the use we can do with them. Not just cameras anymore, Doc: here the “incompatibility” is coming back both as way to make customers loyal to the brand, but especially to control what they are putting on their computers and iPhones and how they are using them. Incompatibility is coming back as way to fight “piracy,” and branding is then not just a fact of coolness, but also and especially a matter of legitimation. If you own an iPhone you are cool because you belong to an accurate and well-heeled market-model, such as the iTunes and AppStore. You are legit, because you are using proprietary devices. Brand is moving from a social to a moral approval, from convincing people to buy their products to threat them if they don’t.
    Now, the fact that even bloggers are considering themselves as subject to a “brandization,” (as Yvonne from BlogHer pointed out) is really sad: it means that we moved from talking about brands to talk as brands.
    They are colonizing even the web… Where are we supposed to live, afterwards?

  4. Doc Searls says:

    Outstanding, Esme. Well put in every way.

    I don’t think I ever saw that Tom Peters piece when it came out. I like Tom, but reading it now makes me cringe, even when I think “Hey, it was thirteen years ago he wrote that.”

    When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, the biggest sports hero still was Babe Ruth. Ty Cobb and Lou Gehrig were in second and third place. In those days Cobb was still alive, and remembered as one tough bastard. Gehrig died (of his eponymous disease) something of a saint. But Ruth, by then long dead, was the embodiment of unhealthy practices combined with amazing natural ability. All of them, though, were very human. Three dimensional. You took them for what they were, which wasn’t anything so simplistic and monodimensional as a “brand.”

    I think you can’t recycle that stuff because it goes in the other can.

  5. Drummond says:

    Right on, Doc. Brands are poor substitutes for the real thing: relationships.


  6. Trine-Maria Kristensen says:

    Exellent post Doc – I think the branding crase has done damage on society. We see it in politics, in debates on tv, even when publishers choose books. People are brands. They have to be goodlooking, charming and for sale. If they also know something it is fine – but first and foremost they have to be brandable to a large audience! Here in DK we used to have originals, people with their own ideas and ideologies – and the public liked them and they got us thinking about ourselves. Now everybody is in the center with about as much attitude as plywood. I sometime talk to my friends about the fact that there are almost no ugly women on tv. Beatiful and maybe boring – but brandable! Arrrggghhh!

  7. Doc Searls says:

    Well, Trine-Maria, I do think it’s a phase. A long one, but still a passing one. But I’m an optimist. There’s more than enough reason to remain cynical.

  8. I mostly came away with mixed emotions after reading this and the “Brands are boring” post. Yes, I agree that “people as brands” is stupid. As you point out, people are human and therefore, chock full of flaws.

    But back to the branding of old (cattle), the physical brand or the scar it left was not the company. The brand simply said this item belongs to XYZ company.

    For me, that is still a valid approach. Just because Mad Men have attempted to extend the concept beyond its physical limits in no way diminishes the concept. Cheapen it, sure. Consider the road trip (a business trip via automobile in particular) early in this twenty-first century. I would record (via my trusted Sony digital recorder) the locations of Starbucks along the interstates… like the one in the Super Target in Waterloo, Iowa on I-380 that I would frequent in 2004 and 2005 on way to and from Britt. Back then, the “brand” said I could get the same great cup of coffee all around the USA. Same as I got on Hilton Head Island, SC or in Las Vegas, NV.

    Today, Howard has destroyed the brand (IMNSHO) by, among other things, brewing only his “cost-cutter” Pike’s Place. No more Verona on tap.

    Brands are more important today than ever. I am old enough to remember when Firestone 500 tires were responsible for large numbers of accidents (circa the early 1970s)… and therefore never had to worry about the relapse they had with SUV tires a few years ago. Because I will never own their product.

    Brands are not boring.

    What some have done in the name of branding, absolutely.


  9. Doc Searls says:

    Thanks, Ski. Several things here.

    First, “Brands are boring” is mainly my reaction to hearing the word constantly thrown around by people who don’t understand what “brand” meant in the first place, much less what the best practitioners (those real brand managers at P&G, B&W and Lever Brothers, for example) actually do for a living.

    Second, branding is good, and not boring, when there is a high degree of integrity between the familiar name/logo/reputation and the company and its goods. We have that with Apple, Canon, Nikon and Peets. We had it with Starbucks, Sony, Toyota and Nike, which have all since jumped the shark, though in different ways — Starbucks by going somewhat to hell and not quite coming back, Sony by becoming an entertainment company, Toyota by compromising its principles and just being stupid, and Nike by leveraging Tiger Woods in a most surreal way. Others, like Firestone and most of the American auto industry, are walking examples of industrial entropy. Anyway, my point is that branding at its best is so rare, even delightful, that maybe calling it “branding” insults the accomplishment.

    Third, the most familiar forms of branding are of the cattle-burning sort. They are the modern versions of “When you’ve got nothing to say, sing it.” So we get thirty-second stories about guys who love their brand of beer more than their beautiful girlfriends, or about horses with hairy hooves. That bullshit works, but it’s still bullshit. Hence the title of this post.

    And distinguishing among the three must not be boring, because here we are, doing it. 🙂

  10. gregorylent says:

    branding … just a tricky way to get more money for the same stuff ..

    who EVER bought into it?

  11. andreaitis says:

    Really interesting discussion. To toss in a point from the other side, I think social media has actually humanized brands, making them more accessible than ever. Blogs, Twitter and Facebook, in particular: Kevin Smith railing at Southwest in his Too Fat to Fly twitter rant, and the public blog exchange that followed. A Facebook group getting Betty White on Saturday Night Live. Insight into Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore thru their twitter msgs. We see John Cusack in all his typo’d glory, complaining about people who complain about how he twitters. We see Roger Ebert, watch him live through and overcome his challenges. Are these meaningful interactions? It varies, of course. But the communities that form around these brands are real, flawed and yes, human. Maybe the difference is that these brands aren’t necessarily being created; they simply exist. Organic vs manufactured brands. Authenticity resonates much more today.

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  13. K Srikrishna says:

    Doc., thanks for kicking off this discussion. As with Yvonne on BlogHer I was beginning to wonder when we ceased writing because it was fun, fulfilling and a way to build bridges and started doing it for building a personal brand. The blogosphere is all too full of branding blather (esp of the personal variety) that to encounter a sensible discussion that distinguishes the cattle variety brand, the implicit promise or pact between a company and its customers that a true brand can be and those that moved from this pact to their thermodynamically driven destruction, that you allude to as entropy in your previous comment.

    We could also use more honesty, less hustling and hubris when it comes to walking the talk of our brand promise.

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  16. Chip says:


    1) thanks for the clarification on brands
    “branding at its best is so rare, even delightful, that maybe calling it “branding” insults the accomplishment.”

    2) fits with what we are trying to do with local foods, local growers

    3) just read (Forbes) about the walking talking money machine : Glenn Beck
    He doesn’t brand good behavior, rather outlandish talk

  17. Publicity surrounding Tiger Woods’ amoral lapses resulted in a compression of $12 billion worth of shareholder value. Tiger’s image bolstered those brands and created “goodwill.” “Goodwill” is the number accountants plug in their financial reports to adjust the difference between acquisition price and “real” value. Real value ties in closely to assets, like cash on hand, inventory, yes–even infrastructure.

    We must think this accounting perspective is really boring because none of us talk about it. It’s hard to find any connection between brand value and “goodwill” in the literature. None of the comments on either of the two fine “brands are BS” posts mentions goodwill. Yet I think that’s what the whole brand strategy struggle is about… grabbing positive attention that keeps a customer coming back and spreading the word re. your products and services.

    Perhaps this is just a trivial observation, fundamental to our understanding. Perhaps it doesn’t deserve discussion any more than the underlying theory of numbers deserves discussion when commenting on the observation that one and one make two. But, damn! The Dow at 11,000 again and AAPL with a market cap of $219 Billion… the lack of market regulation and the expansion of the influence of hedge fund traders… our bubbles grow and burst faster and faster these days. The expanding volume of gas in the bubble that causes the explosion is called “goodwill,” and it is largely a function of brand value, isn’t it?

    Perhaps an accountant or an economist reading this can set me straight (and ease me mind).

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  20. chip says:

    Goodwill also is assigned when one company purchases another for more than book value.
    Why would one ever do this?
    Intangibles, such as brand awareness, and intellectual property
    For brands, they don’t occur out of thin air, they are built over time, but are not carried on the books. IP is often not on the books, the knowledge within the company, the “how we do things” as well as patents and copyrights (despite one’s feelings about copyrights, they exist).

  21. Doc Searls says:

    Good points, Frank. I do think a lot of corporate “goodwill” and “brand value” amounts to bullshit. Michael Lewis’ books about Wall Street and Kevin Phillips’ Bad Money all suggest that the “brands” of many banks and other big-name institutions masked incompetence, short-sightedness and venality out the wazoo.

    This is why I prefer the term “reputation.” Even if it’s wrong, it’s based on what’s inside. Not the paint job.

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  27. Sean Trainor says:

    I’d like to reframe your definition of brands to “Brands are what brands do”
    It’s the people inside the organisation that define the brand, not the marque.
    When the brand strategy focusses on the positioning (what it says) and the advertising (how it says it), then the brand is BULL
    When the brand strategy focusses on what the people do and how the people do it, then the brand is valuaBULL

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