The Fluid Dynamics of Branding

Probably the most important — and deceptively simply — question in our industry is: “What is a brand?” Or, to be even more precise about it, the most important question is: “What is my brand?”

Well, if you’re IKEA, the answer seems to be “Swedish.” If you’re LinkedIn, it’s “professional.” Adidas seems to be a combination of “German” and “soccer,” although “Run DMC” is also important. Much to eBay’s chagrin, Skype is about being a “phone” (good news) and “hype” (bad news).

The source of this wonderful knowledge about what a brand is comes from an amazing experiment, set up by an apparently brilliant young man named Noah Brier. Noah has built a simple site called Brand Tags. Visit Brand Tags and you’ll be presented with a logo and a text box. Type in the first word that comes to your mind. You’ve just tagged the brand.

And like other services that used tags, such as del.icio.us or Flickr, the more people that use a particular tag, the more you can comfortably say that a certain brand is definitely connected to that tag. So, most people who see the IKEA logo say that it’s “Swedish,” and a reasonable number of people who see the Adidas logo are reminded of a certain song by Run DMC.

The Meaning of Crowds

The answer, then, to both of the questions posed above is simple: your brand is made up of the ideas that come into people’s brains when exposed to your logo, your company, or your products. The interesting thing about this is that these ideas may not directly coincide with the ideas that you, as a marketer may have about your brand.

Here’s an example that has come up from Brand Tags: the logo for the upcoming Olympics in China has compelled a significant number of people to place tags like “controversial,” “protest,” and even “Tibet.” This is absolutely a clear reaction to the images that have been surrounding the moving of the Olympic torch through places like San Francisco and up to the top of Mount Everest.

But, would those tags always be associated with the Olympics? Assumedly not. Or, at least not as the most popular tags connected to the brand. If these summer Olympics are similar to all others, there will be some inspirational stories that will emerge, be it official events, such as a gorgeous opening ceremony or a stunning athletic performance.

In this dynamic nature, you can see the magic that Brand Tags has unearthed. We tend to think of brands as fixed things. We do the research, perform the analysis, and decide that a certain brand is “edgy” or “glamorous” or “truthful.” Or, we may believe that a certain product will always be iconic of the brand and that won’t change until we run the next campaign.

This is, of course, total nonsense. A brand is an idea that lives in the consumer’s mind, not in our PowerPoint presentations. And, since it lives there, in the fluid space, it grows and changes and shifts. No other medium allows for that shift so much as the interactive space. The only question is whether the company that’s in charge of the brand is as fluid as the brand itself.

Building Brand Fluidity

Brand fluidity should be on the mind of every marketer. Certainly, a brand should stand for a particular core idea, but consumer experiences with the products often lead to perceptions that drift away from that core. Online, this is extremely apparent, as sites that criticize or popularize a brand creep up in SERPs (define), or as facts (or statements that resemble facts) appear in Wikipedia entries.

So, a brand manager must be ready to deal with this fluidity. Certainly to make sure that ideas don’t stray into dangerous or harmful territory, but also to participate with the community and help to guide the brand into positive directions.

Every company that has a blog gets this idea, at least to a certain degree. Blogs are the ultimate in fluid media — ideas can be posted quickly and succinctly, and every post naturally invites dialog. Participation in that dialog is key to the notion of fluidity.

No brand has ever stood, forever and immutably, for the thing that the brand managers want it to stand for. The brand belongs to the community, and the community is clearly driving the next generation of interactive communications. Even the brand Brand Tags understands this. To generate excitement about this service, the designer used Twitter to give people updates and announcements. He used tools of the community to communicate the growing and changing nature of what he’s built.

The directive, then, is clear. You’ve probably heard the implorations to participate in the community. Let me add my voice, but (hopefully) with a bit of a different spin: it’s in the community where the true value of your brand sits. If you don’t participate, it’s like leaving your life savings in a big pile in the middle of the street. Maybe it will be there when you get back…and maybe not.

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