The end of brand fascism

The topic the global design community is abuzz about this week is the discovery of a 1936 German National Socialist Party Graphic Standards Guide.

It has ignited a lot of discussion about the link between totalitarianism and branding. I don’t want to Godwin up the corporate blog, but let’s just say that there are eerie parallels between marketing’s “persuasion” and the tools an evil dictator uses to recruit, cajole and terrorize a following.

For me, however, it also brought to mind a blogpost I wrote for Work That Matters, almost two years ago. At the time, I was still just feeling my way through the turbulence of the awkward convergence of social and traditional media in advertising. But I was also excited by what I saw as a brand revolution in progress.

Let’s go back in time:

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

I’m going to … talk about something else close to my heart: the evolution of branding in Web 2.0.

But first, let me set the scene with a 25-year-old ad:

It’s not the brand itself that I’m bringing up for context: it’s the tone. Because when it comes to old ways of branding, I feel like social media is the woman with the hammer.

I’ve been working in branding for about 14 years. I understand the traditional approach of absolute control over your positioning, message and image. And to a large extent, those things are still important basics.

But there’s a different thing happening now, and it’s one that not all businesses are comfortable with. It’s conversation. The free exchange of opinions and ideas.

This challenge probably sounds familiar to agency and client peeps alike. The idea of having to manage an ongoing conversation with your audiences, in real time, and opening yourself up to criticism and even rampant trolling is terrifying. It takes time, money, and most of all commitment.

But, from my point of view, one-way, micromanaged branding is no longer a wise strategy. Millions of people can be out there talking about you, or issues that relate to you. If you don’t actively join the conversation, you’re like the coworker who skips going out for drinks after work: if you’re not there, you’re going to be talked about even more. (And perhaps not in the most positive light.)

The other thing to consider is that brands really are like people. The reasons for this are buried in our psychology. We’re evolved to read and understand other people, and as a side-effect we anthropomorphize objects, organizations, and other inanimate things. We guess their intentions, and we decide whether we like them or not. There’s no escaping this.

All this to explain why your brand needs “personality”. Traditionally, brand personalities were developed through market research, insight and strategy, then set in stone for a time. There was ongoing PR and CRM, to be sure, but brand evolution came in fits and starts.

Today, your brand has the opportunity to be more lifelike than ever before. If you can find the champions within your organization to engage in an authentic conversation with fans, critics and even enemies, your brand can become a better “person” — confident, honest, and open.

Think of it this way: How do you feel about friends or public figures who disregard or even stifle all criticism? Does that give you confidence in their point-of-view, or does it come off as insecure or dishonest?

Taking criticism is never a problem. It’s not being able to take it that’s seen as weakness.

Okay, so the reference to “Web 2.0” is a little dated now (and it was even then) but the overall spirit rings true. The question is: have you embraced the new, social, era of branding yet? Or are you still trying to force people to take it on your terms alone?

If your brand refuses to keep pace, history may not absolve it.

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