Branding and Other Nonsense

As the Quakers say, “My friend speaks my mind.” In this case, my friend is Gerry McGovern. And he’s never wrong.

Here’s the full text of is latest New Thinking E-Newsletter. It’s absolutely worth a read and a ponder.


Image: Andreas Praefcke/Wikimedia Commons


The origin of the word branding comes from the branding of cattle. Let’s travel back in time 100 years and listen in to a branding conversation by two cattlemen.

“Very impressive brand, Tom. It has a wonderful aesthetic feel to it.”
“Do you think so, John? We did think very deeply about the colors to choose. And we did have an intense debate about whether to use Athelas or Freight Text Pro. We decided to go with Athelas. It has that certain je ne sais quoi.”

“Absolutely! Superb choice. It will bring the customer on an emotional journey. Listen, the reason for my visit, Tom, is that I’d like your advice. We’re thinking of doing a rebranding.”

“Why is that, John?”

“Well, you know, the last couple of years have not been so good for the brand. We’ve had a drought, got hit by some diseases. The meat quality on the cattle is not great. So, I thought that if we refreshed the brand we could capture back some of our old market share.”

“What a fantastic idea, John! I know just the branding agency for you. They understand bull better than anyone I know.

“It’s amazing, Tom, isn’t it. Take the same old scrawny tough-as-nails meat, put some nice packaging and branding on it, and it just flies out of the store.”
“Those branding guys are magicians, John. They truly understand human emotion and are so brilliant at manipulating it. With the right brand you can sell any sort of bull.”

“And to think, Tom, when I was a kid we had such a limited understanding of what branding was. We thought it was just a unique mark we made on the cattle so that we would know who owned what. When I was a young, foolish teenager, I was under the mistaken impression that what mattered was the meat itself.”

At this stage John laughed. Tom laughed too. They both found the idea that the meat was more important than the brand absolutely hilarious.

“Some idiots say, Tom,” John said in between gushes of laughter, “that the meat is the brand!” Tom looked at him for a moment and then literally rolled around the floor laughing.

Where do people get these crazy ideas from? Don’t they know that coming up with meaningless, interchangeable taglines like: “Live life at a faster pace” is much more important than the quality of the product or service? Haven’t they learned from the magicians of marketing and branding that it’s all about coming up with a compelling story? That the right font and the right color are the quickest way to a customer’s credit card?

Branding is bull, and that’s a fact. Branding in practice is the manipulation of human emotion, the targeting of human weaknesses, the wrapping of the product in an image that has got nothing to do with the product itself. The gushing, smiling faces of actors pretending to be customers. Branding is the mark of the establishment. The opposite of authenticity.

Yes, we humans are fools and we have long fallen for branding and the whole school of psychological manipulation that goes behind it. But there is a reaction underway. Many of us are getting tired of being fools and being fooled. We go to the Web now, to search, to research, to check the facts, to read up on what people like us who have bought the product have experienced.

Gerry McGovern

I encourage you to follow McGovern. On Twitter, he’s @gerrymcgovern.

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College Changes Name Again: I Told You This Was a Mistake!

Do you ever have those days when you feel vindicated and can say to the world, “I told you so?” I’m having one of those days today!

Back in August, 2012, I first weighed in on a controversial name change of a university in Georgia. The short version is that two schools were merging, branding recommendations were made and the regents of the university system discounted the facts and renamed the university what they wanted it to be called.

At the time, I said, “I’ll be interested to see how this plays out. If, in fact, the Georgia regents did go against research when choosing the name of the combined university, they’ll be in trouble. This never works out well.” [emphasis added]

And guess what? They are now changing the name again. To what the top choice was then.

Millions of dollars were spent on this campaign before they surrendered to the inevitable. When will they ever learn, eh?

To Better Position Your College, Remove Word ‘College’ from Name?

Students and alumni of King’s College London have reacted with horror after the university announced it will change its name to “King’s London”.

Yet another spectacularly stupid epic fail in the world of “rebranding.” There are a lot of smart people who work in universities and colleges — including your faithful correspondent — but there really are an astonishing number of stupid people running many of them.

Read this from Times Higher Education.

UX: What Do Users Really Want? Ease-of-Use, That’s What.

There are days, most of them, really, when I wish I could carry Gerry McGovern around in my pocket. He’s just so spectacular at cutting to the chase when it comes to consumer interactions and the web.

So, why don’t more organizations get usability? Because they often measure the wrong things. Like satisfaction, engagement, interaction, relationships, loyalty. So much marketing and branding hyperbole.

“Feeling overwhelmed, consumers want support – not increased marketing messages or “engagement” – to more quickly and easily navigate the purchase process,” Corporate Executive Board (CEB) stated in a study it published in 2012. “Brands that help consumers simplify the purchase journey have customers who are 86 percent more likely to purchase their products and 115 percent more likely to recommend their brand to others.”

In a study of 7,000 consumers, CEB found that only 20% want a relationship with a brand. In a study by Havas Media in 2013, over 90% of Western consumers said they wouldn’t care if most brands disappeared. Brands and marketing has a hugely inflated view of how important they are in the lives of customers. It’s time to get real.

“Our research indicates that the impact of simplifying purchase decisions for consumers is four times stronger than the favored marketing strategy of engagement and is the number one driver of likelihood to buy,” said Patrick Spenner, managing director at CEB.

Read the whole thing.

P.S. — Read that first paragraph of his again. Now again. And again until it’s memorized.

“Branding” Is Killing Your Website

Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes. This:

Of course, everything you are now about to read is fictional. Most real customers couldn’t be bothered writing to organizations to vent their annoyance. They just leave.
Customer: Hello, I visited your site interested in getting a price for your product. Couldn’t find any pricing info. Instead, there were these huge images that took ages to load.”
Organization: Dear customer, Sorry you didn’t find any information on pricing. That’s because we don’t publish any. And the images are part of our branding campaign. Have a nice day.”
Customer: Your site is impossible to navigate and you don’t even have search. I was considering buying from you but not any more more.”
Organization: Dear customer, Sorry to hear about… KEEP READING

Nobody says it better than the divine Gerry McGovern!

The End of Brand Loyalty: Marketing Today

James Surowiecki: The End of Brand Loyalty : The New Yorker.

Great piece. Surowiecki tells us the story of Lululemon and how they went from the absolutely must have clothing to having the founder step down to a non-management role to having its sales “decelerate meaningfully.” Also, the founder blamed some of the quality control problems of his clothing on some women being too fat to wear it. Yeah, that’s not going to grow your bottom line.

The rise of “information overload” — which, by the way, doesn’t exist — means that you can find out just about anything you want to before you lay out cash for it. In fact, in many areas, you expect it.


“See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet,” sang Dinah Shore for years. Dinah didn’t have to contend with online consumer reviews when hawking this ’59 Impala.

For years, General Motors built sales for the entire corporation on brand loyalty and on a stair-step approach to marketing. Chevrolet was the entry-level vehicle. You could stand pat with larger and more luxurious Chevys, or, if you wanted to truly be seen as upwardly mobile — “keeping up with the Joneses” is what we called it — you started in a Chevy, graduated to a Pontiac, then a Buick, then an Oldsmobile and finally, for those rarified few, Cadillac, “the standard of the world.”

It was easier to be brand loyal when you had no idea if the Chevy you wanted to buy was a piece of shit or not. Now, there’s no excuse. I just Googled “2014 Chevrolet Impala review” — in quotes — and got 591,000 hits. You don’t need all of those; you can get the gist in the first page of results and even have several virtual ride-a-longs, thanks to YouTube auto reviewers.

The way we shop today bears no resemblance to how we shopped 10 or 20 years ago. So why do we market the same ways?

Content is King, Always

sully-newdishThis is an excellent piece from Sullivan. It is an indictment of the Republicans in general and the Romney campaign in particular, but it’s an important marketing point that cannot be overlooked.

Stuart Stevens, lead strategist for Romney’s 2012 campaign, rightly disagrees with the idea that Mitt lost because of social media. His organizational haplessness (yes, he was supposed to be the guy who knew how things worked) didn’t help, but it was his awful 1980s doctrines from a brain-dead party that brought him down.

I’m not denying that in the slightest, but that’s only the introduction. Here’s the meat:

In this fourth decade of the Internet, one of the original truisms is still true: Content is king. The ugly, clunky Drudge Report site still harvests record numbers of eyeballs because it serves up a hearty meal at a good price: free. The content rule is true across mediums. How many graphic makeovers and relaunches has CNN attempted to arrest its slow slide? …

That’s Sullivan quoting Stevens. The emphasis after the colon is mine. This is Marketing 101, folks. How many times are you going to change your logo? Change your signature colors? Change your tagline? Change the way you talk about yourself in an effort to “rebrand for market share?”

If the content sucks, it doesn’t matter how slick the design. Never has. Never will. If the content is brilliant no one cares what it looks like. Those are just the facts.

But don’t believe me. Ask the Coca-Cola company how many times they’ve changed their logo.