Which ketchup? or: What is a brand in the digital age?

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The word "brand" is probably the most misunderstood word ever. Search and you shall find several hundred, often contradictory definitions.


What exactly a brand is has also changed over time. Some schools of thought limit the meaning of brand to corporations and products, while in the West, especially in America, anything and anyone can be a brand these days.


American marketers usually point out that the word "brand" originated in the 19th century when cattle from the Midwest were being driven to slaughter in Chicago. In order to identify their provenance, they were "branded".


That's a nice etymology, but it's got nothing to do with the origin of brands. In any case, "Branding" is much more than putting a label on goods so you can tell where they come from. 


So where do brands come from?

The earliest (and incidentally biggest, to this day) brands in human history were not Coca-Cola or McDonald's, but temples. Gods made promises to you and accepted your offering in exchange. Sacrifice a goat for good harvest, or your firstborn to win the next battle. Sites of worship, from Shinto shrines to Stonehenge, were the earliest flagship stores.


Religions in all their variety branded the unspeakable, the ineffable, just like successful brands do today, long before we put signs on shops and labels on clothes. They had their symbols (logos), their revelations (brand message) and their rituals (brand DNA). They even had brand managers, in the form of priests, monks, nuns, shamans, or what have you. 


At the core of these brands was one word, "belief". The "brand" religion was successful if people believed in it. As beliefs diverged, so did brands. Martin Luther didn't reform the Catholic Church, he created a new sub-brand. The thousands of varieties of Buddhism are the Buddha's "house of brands". Every Muslim preacher has his own "brand". There is indeed very little difference between the queue of worshippers waiting to receive communion in a church, to stick incense in a burner outside a temple, to listen to a mufti -- or the fanbois waiting two days in line for the latest iPhone or Nike sneakers.


Belief is the soul of a brand

Belief is therefore at the very heart of what a brand is. But what belief exactly? How can brands influence our beliefs?


In a small isolated village, the noodle shop had no need for branding, marketing, or even a shop sign. Everybody knew where it was and what it sold. People went to "the baker", "the butcher", or "the barber".


As human civilization grew, the distances between settlements shrank. People began to travel. The beginning of travel and increased contact between parts of the word marks the inception of branding. When travelers from foreign shores arrived at our village, they went to the noodle shop because they believed (there is that word again!) the landlord's advice: "You must go to yonder eatery near the pond, where you will find the best noodles in the village!" (for "noodles" substitute pies, ale, whiskey, or whatever you like)


As our intrepid travelers left, they took with them their experiences and their stories. It is a bit cumbersome to refer to "the noodle shop near the pond, just behind the temple", or that "barber in between the candlemaker and the cloth merchant", and thus shop signs sprang up (i.e. brand name and logo). The little noodle eatery became "Old Ma's Noodle Shop"; someone made a carving of a noodle bowl, and the shop's logo was born. your watering whole became "The Cock and Bishop" and your favorite temple the "Temple of Heavenly Grace". Medieval guild signs (see below) or Japanese divider curtains ("noren") became the first "logos" of "brands", long before Americans drove their cattle north.


Medieval guild signs

Japanese divider curtains ("noren")




Exhausted, our traveler arrived back home and told everyone that in the village on the mountain pass, he had tasted the best noodles ever at "Old Ma's Noodle Shop". (Never mind that he did not choose the shop or compare it with other noodle shops, he just believed the landlord or a friend's recommendation.) A brand reputation is born. Soon everyone passing through the village knows where to find Old Ma's Noodle Shop. And because they have been told those are the best noodles in the land, they believe that very much. 


As the village grew into a city, the noodle shop was a bit harder to find, so Old Ma put up a few signs. Maybe she printed flyers and handed them out at the city gate. Her slogan was "Best Noodle Shop in the Land - As Everyone Knows!" And people believed it! "The King's Guard once ate here!" (there's your brand story). Woodblock printing was indeed first used not to print the Bible, but advertisements for apothecaries and snake oil sellers. Some of the earliest Chinese bamboo slips ("jiandu") are not religious texts, but mentions of herbalists' shops. Thus began the art of branding. 


It's not about your beliefs, but theirs

The growth of cities and the need to bridge distances (information gap) marks the beginning of branding in the modern sense, i.e. the active promotion of a brand in various guises. With the advent of modern mass media, we invented the radio, and later the TV commercial. Now we have digital ads and Youtube. And somehow in all that flurry of activity we call "marketing" we lost the meaning of "brand".


I have taught hundreds courses and workshops on branding and marketing in my career, and I have always asked the participants to come up with their own definition of a "brand". One of the definitions that always comes up is "A brand is a symbol that stands for the quality of a product". Oh, would that it were, would that it were! I call that the "Logo Fallacy". A logo is a good thing to have, but it is not the whole brand. It isn't even necessary. Actors and politicians are brands, and they usually don't have logos. It certainly has nothing to do with "quality."


The second most common definition goes like this: "A brand is a set of values, a vision, or a promise to the consumer ... " etc. This definition can be found in many textbooks also. It is complete tosh.


Your corporate mission statement, your brand DNA, or brand story, or your founder's vision, have sod all to do with your brand. I call this the  "Manager Fallacy", the arrogant idea that the owner or manager of a brand has an influence on how a brand is ultimately perceived. Most of your clients never read your "brand values" or your "brand promise". These are just tools invented by marketing consultants to indoctrinate your employees, who don't believe in them either. 


Other definitions of a "brand" focus on the owner or founder, others on features of the product. They are all incomplete, and too numerous to list here. Try to thing of a definition of "brand" now before reading on, and you will see that yours too is very likely incomplete.


You have already lost control of your brand

The more modern definitions tend to include "everything you do and say" in the definition of a brand. While this is closer to the truth, I still believe it is wrong. I call this the "Influence Fallacy", the mistaken belief that the sum total of your messaging, your private and corporate actions, or your character, make up your "brand". Your utterances and governances may influence the outcome, but they still are not your brand. 


The "everything" definition comes from the era of mass communication. There was a time before the Internet when TV commercials and a bit of word of mouth really did make up a large part of a brand. But we now live in the age of Google and Facebook, in an age where everyone has an opinion and the ability to express it, i.e. influenceothers. When we influence someone, the other person has to believe us. There's that word, again!


That means that a large part of what people learn and know about your brand doesn't stem from you, from what you do or say, but from what other people say or do with your brand. You cannot influence those opinions directly other than by offering the best customer experience possible. If you focus on advertising rather than optimizing, you have already lost control of your brand. The age of the snake oil seller is no more.


When TV commercials first aired, they were in part valuable information, telling consumers about new brands and products. Nowadays they act more as calls-to-action, i.e. go on Twitter and Facebook and tell people what you really think about a brand. Advertising has lost not just its shine, but its very purpose. Likewise, in the golden age of the telephone, people were happy to take calls from salesmen who extolled the virtues of hoovers and car insurance. Nowadays most people hang up immediately when they get a cold call. This is why we talk about inbound marketing and content marketing, and why companies who still rely on advertising are practically already dinosaurs. Elon Musk built Tesla without spending a single dollar on advertising. Many brands see no decline in sales when they stop TV commercials. There will always be role for it, but its golden days are over.


So, if it isn't the logo, or the values, or the mission, or the DNA, or everything YOU do as a brand, what then is a brand? Well, let me tell you about ketchup. 


Choosing the right ketchup

I grew up with Heinz. I like the taste of Heinz ketchup. When I go shopping, I buy Heinz ketchup. It is a good brand. I believe it is the right brand for me.


When you live in Taiwan like I do, you have practically two choices: Heinz or a Japanese brand called Kagome. Some years ago my local supermarket ran out of Heinz ketchup, so I reluctantly bought Kagome for the first time. 


I don't have to tell you how difficult it was for me to buy a product I didn't know, with a ridiculously ugly design, no real logo, and atrocious packaging (it's a low-quality plastic bottle in a flimsy wrapper). I thought the end of the world had arrived.


Turns out I quite liked the taste of Kagome (which is practically the Heinz of Japan, I later learned). I was so surprised I did a blind tasting a few days later, and still preferred Kagome.


De gustibus, of course, non est disputandum. The point here is that I believed for decades that Heinz was my favorite brand and I never bothered to check. 


When my niece and nephew stayed with us a few weeks later, they looked at the odd ketchup bottle and decided they didn't like the taste of it. I poured the Japanese ketchup into a Heinz bottle, and the world was all right again: yes, that was the ketchup they loved! Children are so gullible.


This little episode got me started on a series of experiments which opened my eyes to the power of beliefs. I invited a group of friends over for a barbecue. I offered them Kagome in a Heinz bottle and Heinz in a Kagome bottle. I told them how I had discovered that Japanese brand and that I preferred it over Heinz. 


Everybody chimed in, and everybody compared the taste. 18 out of 20 people opted for the Heinz bottle, explaining at length that this was the taste they liked, preferred, and would choose over some cheap Asian crap brand anytime. And then I told them that the Heinz bottle contained the very "crap" they had so readily dismissed. Turns out not just children are horribly gullible when it comes to branding.


Challenging beliefs in the digital age

My little ketchup story shows the power of branding, but it also shows what a brand truly is, and that is no anything you do or say, not your brand values or your brand mission, but, just like it has always been from the dawn of time, everything people believe about you. 


Let me say that again. 


"A brand is the everything other people believe about you." 


It has no relation to the quality of your product, the power of your marketing, or your personal charisma. It has no basis in fact, just like religion. There is no God, the Wizard is just an old man behind the curtain, and the Emperor has no clothes. 


I later did a few more experiment, with everything from whiskey to mobile phones. More often than not, my test subjects did stick with their beliefs, regardless of actual experience. One guy kept buying gear endorsed by Michael Jordan, even though the quality was shit, another swore by a specific red wine, although he confused it with white wine in the blind tasting.


Believe in the force of the brand

At every workshop I have ever done, someone would mention Apple and call it "the most innovative company" ever. Apple is not an innovator, it is a listener. There were tablets before the iPad and MP3 players before the iPod. Nothing Apple has ever done was innovative in the sense of being truly new. But they are excellent at listening and improving products. Yet people chose to believe that Apple is an innovator


Our perceptions and opinions of brands used to come from print, radio and TV advertising, personal experience, and word of mouth. In that golden age of advertising, it was easy to influence people's opinions about brands. In the era of social media and ubiquitous digital communication, this is no longer true. We do not believe what the advertisement tells us, we believe what our friends on Facebook say. When the iPhone X came out, one critical review by a friend of mine was viewed a million times and has altered Apple's brand perception more than the company itself could ever hope to do. 


In a sense, we are back to the days where "word of mouth" had far more influence than advertising and marketing. Marketing, in a sense, is dead. Branding is no longer the art of hype and conviction, but of solid results and true value for the customer.


Despite Google and Facebook and Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, regardless of the medium, the time, the age, the culture, or the language, there is only one universal definition of a "brand". It's that simple, i.e. other people's beliefs.


Managing a brand i.e. branding and marketing, in the age of social media has never been harder, because it requires a return to old-fashioned virtues we have long forgotten: doing the right thing. Only authentic brands who deliver honest products and real value stand a chance now. No amount of advertisement and marketing can build lasting, positive brand image. We shall look at this in an upcoming article.