Borrowing from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, brands should not be defined by what they are, but how they are used. Trying to inject a profound meaning into brand is merely an exercise in ineffective positioning.
I love seeing the balloon of human hubris popped by the pin prick of experience in the real world, alongside the passage of time. There were some cracking examples in the 20th century.
In 1992, the political economist and writer, Francis Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man. He declared we had reached the end of history. Liberal democracy and free market capitalism were the end point of social and economic evolution, he argued. Goodness, there’s heroic confidence. Many took this as truth. What then followed was a harrowing diet of the war on terror, Lehman Brothers, the credit crunch, Trump, the rise of China and increased nationalism in many developed liberal democracies fuelled by uncontrolled globalisation. No cigar there Francis.
Similarly, 100 years ago, Ludwig Wittgenstein, arguably the 20th century’s greatest philosophical mind, charmingly declared, in his epic Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, to have solved all the problems of philosophy. This was because of the book’s famous ‘picture theory of meaning’, which held that language is meaningful because of its ability to depict possible arrangements of objects in the world. Any meaningful statement could be analysed as such a depiction. This leads to the book’s most famous conclusion that if a statement does not depict a possible arrangement of objects, it doesn’t mean anything at all.
“What if trying to imbue a deeper, more profound meaning into brand, is mere self indulgence, a distraction, or exercise in ineffective positioning?“
Ethics, religion, the nature of the world beyond objects… most statements of traditional philosophy, Wittgenstein contended, are therefore nonsense. So, having destroyed a 2000-year tradition, dear old Ludwig did the reasonable thing. He gave up philosophy, passed on his fortune and became a primary school teacher in rural Austria.
Myth has it that on a trip back to Vienna by train, he had an epiphany. He gave up teaching and returned to the life philosophic. Published posthumously in 1953 his Philosophical Investigations, entirely undoes his previous thinking and arguments. In this masterpiece, he sets out his new theory of meaning, arguing that the definition of a word is based on how it is understood. Words are not defined by reference to the objects they designate, but how they are used.
Applying philosophy to branding
As a thought experiment, let’s follow Wittgenstein’s logic and apply it to brands. Brands are not defined by what they are, but how they are used. Or, to understand a brand’s meaning, we have to understand how it is used by customers.
Brand purpose, brand vision statements, attributes, values, loyalty, brand love… they are all exploded, or severely dented, by this hypothesis, in the customer context.
What does it mean for marketers coming out of the pandemic, who are looking to establish their brands and products in this new trading environment? Armed with this surprising insight, how do we manage relationships with the CEO, HR director and exco, who have bought into becoming a ‘purpose-led’ brand and promoting that to our customers? What if trying to imbue a deeper, more profound meaning into brand, is mere self indulgence, a distraction, or exercise in ineffective positioning?
Without wishing to dissemble, perhaps the best approach to this conundrum is to delineate between the role of a brand externally verses internally. If we accept what we have learnt from neuroscience and psychology, we know that strong brands are used habitually. Choice and thought is eradicated, as the system 1 brain automatically selects the brand, based on years of coding, memory and association building through advertising, distribution and experience. In this sense what a brand stands for has never really mattered past the initial trialling phase.
For established brands it is about maintaining and reinforcing an existing connection with more habit-forming, neurologically rich, stimuli; through advertising, packaging and product experience, supported by a broad distribution footprint. These brands don’t need to worry about trying to create loyalty or brand love (both of which imply active choice), or imbuing brands with a deeper meaning or purpose. It’s about building brand salience, forming and reinforcing habits, and ensuring the brand is very, very easy to buy.
For newer brands trying to establish themselves, surely the focus should be less on changing the world, and much more on being consistently distinctive – in appearance, tone and approach – while delivering superior service, memorable experiences and above expectation outcomes, at an acceptable price, that doesn’t damage the world or social fabric?
What is the role of brand purpose? From what I can see for many brands it has become a tool to provide a veneer of respectability, though some examples are wonderfully irrelevant.
Internally, the role of brand building couldn’t be more different. Here, it’s about attracting and retaining staff and encouraging discretionary effort – often unpaid extra work – so the enterprise can achieve its commercial goals without increasing costs. This is where a strong sense of purpose and meaningful values, in a welcoming and supportive culture, become critical. In today’s world, thankfully, this includes much more focus on inclusion, diversity and accessibility to get the best from all available talent.
Equally, demonstrating commitments to environmental sustainability, as employees increasingly expect their business not to harm the world for future generations.
What is the role of brand purpose? From what I can see for many brands it has become a tool to provide a veneer of respectability, though some examples are wonderfully irrelevant. Do we really want or need paint that can save the world? Or drinks, cars, chocolate bars and bank accounts that do the same? Not really in my view. I’d rather they provide brilliant service at the right price without doing any harm. There are very few businesses that can have a positive societal impact. Everyone else might want to get out of the way.
Often management teams conflate the different roles of a brand internally and externally, but smart marketers know there is a significant difference, and make the brand look both ways.
They understand the different roles that need to be played, and tactics to be deployed. They get that to understand how a brand works, we must understand how it functions and is used in different contexts in the real world, not a make believe, or theoretical one.
If we don’t do this, and build brands by paying no respect to their use, we will be wasting our time, or, as Wittgenstein said, rather elliptically, “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him”.