Many consumers today instinctively recoil at the concept of a brand. The more cynically minded see brands as the corporate antithesis of art. When anyone sells out, it’s a brand that buys their soul.
There are plenty of bad brands around, so it’s understandable that blame gets attached to the underlying notion itself. But, in essence, a brand is simply a constellation of qualities – a personality in the material realm. It presents a vision of life in a hugely condensed manner via physical objects and services.
As a result, what is for sale in a branded item is not really the watch, the soft drink or the shirt. What we really want to purchase is something more elusive, with more importance: a sense of belonging, a vision of life, qualities of mind and character; it is this larger meaning which the brand conveys.
But a brand doesn’t only symbolise a set of ideas. It makes these ideas reproducible and universal. Brands allow particular qualities to multiply across the world. Brands help to overcome the unreliability of individuals. The brand offers the template and the rules, so that you needn’t be a genius to bring about something of genius (which is good news because there are few geniuses around and we don’t want good things to have to depend on such a rare phenomenon).
Consumers tend to suspect the negative possibilities of reproduction. When a particular branded shop moves into a town, people might become unhappy – and they may have good reasons. However, the true culprit is not the idea of repetition. What we are really objecting to is what is being repeated: what’s being standardised isn’t itself impressive or wonderful.
The amoral approach to business says a good brand is simply a brand that is strong and popular. It doesn’t matter what the content of the brand happens to be; raw capitalism is impressed only by how many people recognise the brand and spend money accordingly.
But perhaps we should be asking a different question: what makes a brand admirable in broad human terms? What makes it good in the sense of contributing to human flourishing and helping us lead the best lives we can? A good brand in this sense would be one that is built around a set of genuine virtues, of qualities that properly help us to flourish.
We need a lot more of those brands, but too many neglect the attitude that consumers desire. To bring this topic into the light, an all-star line-up of leading business thinkers will explore how brands can secure a long-term commercial advantage by offering products, services and content that genuinely help customers lead better lives, at Business Wise. Let’s bring businesses to life.
Ewen Haldane is business director at The School of Life.