The big misunderstanding about “brand”

Whatever most people believe about a subject, you can be sure that the exact opposite is true.

It’s crazy how often this principle turns out to be accurate.  I’d almost call it a law of nature.  Or “Smith’s Law” perhaps.  On any subject of understanding (as opposed to hard fact), people have an incredible ability to get precisely the wrong end of the stick.  So much so that you can get a great insight into the world simply by assuming this to be the case by default.

(There’s a great Seinfeld episode about this – isn’t there always? – where George decides to do the exact opposite of what he thinks he should do in any given moment, an approach which naturally yields great success).

Our case in point today is the idea of “brand”.

Like everything else, it’s something which most people have totally backwards – including many marketers and brand experts.

Let me show you.

Here’s the common understanding of what brand is, how it works, and what you use it for:

• You create a company
• You have a product or service to sell
• You create a “brand” to overlay on top of the product or service
• And the brand helps you sell it

Seems pretty sensible right?  People build brands to help them sell product.  If you have a great brand – like Apple, BMW, Coke, etc. – then you’ll shift more units than if you have a crap brand.  Thus it makes sense to do a “branding” exercise to try and make your business as appealing as possible.

Like with all misunderstandings, there is some truth here.

Doing things like this – using a brand to help sell product – does work.  It works well enough in fact to furnish the entire multi-billion dollar “branding” industry.  And those guys aren’t wasting their time; they are providing value.

But, passable though it may be, this understanding of brand is still wrong.

The truth can be summed up in the following couplet:

It’s not your brand’s job to sell your product.
It’s your product’s job to sell your brand.

Let me repeat that.

It’s not your brand’s job to sell your product.
It’s your product’s job to sell your brand.

These are two entirely different ways of playing the game, where the order is flipped.  In the first approach, the conventional approach, you start with a product and then you “brand it”:

Product —> Brand

In the second more strategic approach you start with brand, and then you manifest it in product:

Brand —> Product

If you see brand as being this vague stylistic thing represented by nice design and pretty words this idea probably doesn’t make a lot of sense.  You can’t just make a cool logo and then pull a successful product out of it.

But if you understand brand correctly, as an expression of value, and you understand product correctly, as a manifestation of value, then it starts to make sense.

Brand = expression of value
Product = manifestation of value

To give you an example of what I mean, let’s think about that old chestnut Patagonia (sorry to always use the same examples but it just makes it easier for everybody to click into the concept quickly).

Do they make a jacket, and then start doing brand stuff to “elevate” it and make it seem “special”?

No, they do the opposite.  They start with a super clear idea of their brand – its value, its meaning, its philosophy – and then engineer the jacket to be as vibrant an expression of those things as possible.  The brand “made flesh” if you like.  And of course with this thinking they don’t have to stop at jackets.  They aren’t a “jacket company” with cool branding.  No, they can make absolutely anything which acts as a physical manifestation of the brand – e.g. their branching into “provisions”, and workwear, and all this other random stuff which you don’t see from their nominal “competitors” like Berghaus or whoever.

Most businesses don’t start with brand like this, they end with it, like the cherry on the cake.

And this is why they:

• Struggle to differentiate
• Don’t have a clear idea of what verticals they can move into
• Make uninspiring products
• And generally have shit brand presence

It’s because of all this that the very term “branding” is fatally flawed.  If you are “branding” something then you’ve already lost, because that implies that the thing itself didn’t emerge from a fully formed brand.  In other words it didn’t emerge from a rich, opinionated, insightful expression of genuine value.  It’s just a generic “thing”.

You need to stop thinking of your branding as a sort of “advertisement” for your product, and start thinking of the product as the ad.

You are selling an idea.
Selling a point of view.
Selling a belief.
Selling a philosophy.
Selling a vision.

The product is a form of advertisement for those things.  An agent for them.  A messenger.

“OK”, you might be thinking, “I get that this is true for something sexy and aspirational like a fashion brand, but isn’t this all a bit over the top for a more functional business?”.


This misconception comes from the other fallacy that assumes that “branding” is by definition high falutin’ and glamorous.  But of course brand is not those things.  It is just a pointed and insightful expression of value.

Pimlico Plumbers, the London plumbing, heating, and electrics titans, built a brutally effective (and unglamorous) business “brand first” – by starting with the platform of getting people’s problems fixed immediately, without any complexity or messing around.

Sounds obvious but there’s a lot of depth there.  They recognised that when your boiler breaks, or your pipes burst, you just want it dealt with – and therefore are probably willing to pay massively over the odds to do that.  Thus you get 24 hour service, instant phone answering, 1 hour call-out times, and yes, breathtakingly extortionate prices.

But that’s cool because that’s a brand.  Just as much as Patagonia is.  They are not a plumbing company who have done a good “branding job” (in fact they’ve clearly done remarkably little in that regard).  They are a brand idea who have manifested as a plumbing company – and much more besides.

So flip your thinking.

Bring your idea of brand to being the deepest, most foundational part of your business.  The soil from which the rest of it grows.  And then nurture all else you create in its image.

Of course, if you haven’t been thinking this way so far, then your current brand won’t be up to this task.  And that’s a great test in itself.  Can you grow a business from your brand?  Probably not.

So there is work to be done.

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