Books with agendas, such as Beyond Branding , edited by brand consultant Nicholas Ind, are part of a growing trend in political, economic, and social action coalitions to forge change. Using a multifarious marketing approach to selling the book’s message and the contributing writer’s ideals (via the web, in blogs, consulting, and public speaking, etc.) the writers brand their own perspectives with the “beyond branding” movement they’ve launched. Overall, the book presents a compelling story concerning the need for a collaborative effort among social, political, corporate, and consumer stakeholders to address world needs through the metaphor of the brand. However, I tripped on my way to supporting the book’s mantra as I read Alan Mitchell’s contribution “Beyond Brand Narcissism.”
Mitchell starts his chapter with a mutually agreeable quote by Doug Daft, CEO, Coca-Cola. “You must guard against not only complacency, but also narcissism – the temptation to stare into the mirror when you should be looking out of the window. Our business is not about understanding our brand. It’s about understanding people.” However, I move away as Mitchell begins a brand-bashing diatribe. Lashing-out at brand managers and corporate leaders (the very people he will need to engage to make change) seems counterproductive. Mitchell compares brand management to narcissistic personality disorder (quite a leap), and limits brand manager’s professional perspectives to self interest (p.37).
I don’t buy his logic. He uses weak assumptions to build his case for “brand narcissism” as a systemic disorder. He tacitly pulls Peter Senge’s systems thinking theory (without context or examples) into the fray as supporting evidence, and fails to convince.
However, Mitchell pulls me back into his argument, as he discusses branding’s role as a naming device which helps buyers and sellers create win-wins by streamlining communication. He admits “to suggest that somehow brands are ‘bad’ to be ‘against brands’ or to predict the ‘death of brands’ is simply absurd” (p. 39). Instead, Mitchell blames the problem of brand narcissism on structural, operational, motivational and methodological causes. However, he misses, or dismisses human hubris and situational ethics.
Mitchell goes on to say that cracking the clutter and crowding problem of “look at me” brand positioning lies at the heart of finding a cure for brand narcissism (p. 39-40). His argument rests on how modern companies create value. Stating that companies are inwardly focused to survive economically (based on traditional industrial-aged thinking), however, is not modern business thinking. I concur, there is an intrinsic need for the marketing process to include customer/consumer costs in the equation. The brand offering should also focus on what the consumer truly needs or wants versus manufactured images created through manipulative marketing and advertising practices. I agree with these points, but Mitchells pervasive bashing of marketing practices is irresponsible, unfair, and undermines his message.
Marketers are presented as predators that manipulate and shape naïve consumer purchasing practices. My personal experience with such brands as Gerber, Disney, Cole-Haan, Nike, Blue-Cross-Blue shield, Sears, Samsonite tell me a different story. The well established science of understanding consumer behavior, for example, studies how, what, when, and why people buy. It is not a manipulation process. Professionals study individual and group consumer dynamics and characteristics in-depth (demographics, psychographics, and behavioral variables) in an attempt to understand people's wants, needs and perceptions. Consumers migrate toward the pop-culture/fashioning of their times. Behavior is situational, can be influenced, sometimes even mandated.
Mitchell’s assertion that profit is king in corporate “countries” who operate as selfish fiefdoms may be true in certain instances---especially when organizations are trying to survive beyond market demand, or take advantage of sole position. “Once value extraction becomes the purpose of brand building, branding loses its original raison d’être- the win-wins that made it valuable in the first place” (p.45). Corporations that do go this route become “seller-centric.” Mature businesses who engage in this practice they often do not embrace the changes needed to address the market demands. As a result, they often falter or die (Ford Motor Company’s current dilemma). Mitchell’s message looses luster as he overstates the obvious and incorporates derogatory metaphors such as “mind-cuckoo marketing” to hatch his ideas.
I agree, that much like our world culture, our current marketing system is undergoing profound change due to the ongoing communications revolution based on the accelerating affects of information technology. Mitchell fails to capture my imagination, however, with his simplistic revelation regarding the emergence of consumer advocacy (p.50). I realize he is selling the message of the books purveyors and their own emerging “business,” but this enlightenment reaches beyond the pale of what is palpable for me to consider. Advocacy, like Ralph Nader, is not new news.
Mitchell unravels his argument as he expunges current processes and announces a radical branding paradigm shift. In my view, he oversells his cause. The changes taking place may be more a result technological innovation, and political, social and economic development than a seismic shift.
Ind, N. (2003). Beyond Branding: How the New Values of Transparency and Integrity Are Changing The World of brands. London: Korgan Page.
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