Obsessive Branding Disorder?

Curious Cow I’ve always had a cynical view of companies that offer “branding” and “strategy.” Both are valid, necessary, important activities which every business owner must consider, but I’ve seen too many creative houses that get into these lines as a way to sell creative services — and little more. To them, it’s just creative services, rebranded. The thing that gets me most is how often some of these types of shops tend to rebrand themselves, and what that means to them… the joke I never said to one of their faces when meeting them on the street was, “Hey, I saw your new brand — very nice! Been slow around the shop lately?” I don’t know where they found the time to rebrand themselves every six months and still look after clients. The sad thing is that you just know the sales rep’s are out there telling prospects that they’ve just rebranded and they’re all-new, all-energetic, all-knowing, all-powerful… well, maybe not those last two. I hope. And once they get someone on the hook for a bit of creative, they’re going to stretch it into a rebranding exercise for the new client, as though every new client doesn’t already have a brand to be considered, no matter how long they’ve been in existence. All I want to know is why? Do they believe this stuff, or are they just following the herd?

The subject came up again for me because I saw John Moore’s post at Brand Autopsy on Lucas Conley’s book, OBD: Obsessive Branding Disorder: The Illusion of Business and the Business of Illusion (Amazon USA), a more extensive development of his Fast Company article from October 2005. I haven’t read the book, but the aforelinked will give a reasonable overview — along with, of course, the OBD website. In the article, which compares branding mania with the self-help industry, Conley writes,

You’d have to be crazy–excuse me, having a behavioral health issue–not to realize that branding has gotten out of control. Part of the problem is that everyone’s doing it. Bill Schley, author of Why Johnny Can’t Brand (Portfolio, November 2005), says branding “is not what you say but what you do.” But what a company does is already, well, what it does! To brand, in a corporate sense, is no more a verb than “to gorgeous.” A brand is a result, not a tactic. One cannot go about branding an organization or a product or a service; the organization, product, or service is what creates the brand. In a brilliant twist, the experts have bottled an end and sold it as a means.

“Remove the hype, and branding is just commonsense strategy, rebranded.” I like what Conley is getting at here: the notion that because everything you do is part and parcel to the creation of your brand, then it’s a bit disingenuous to sit around in a boardroom and decide what your brand should look like so that you can then tell people that this is what it does look like, when in fact, it doesn’t. This is called Lying to Your Customers. Perhaps you’re lying to yourself as well.

And this is what brings me back to my old cynical joke. Branding is the product that gets sold by creative houses because it has the most billable creative work, along with some add-on nebulous billables. And the first thing they’re going to do is tell you to abandon your old brand and adopt a new one.  Excuse me?

  • Anecdote numero uno: a few years back, I had a sales guy sit in my boardroom and describe the rebranding that his company, [insert meaningless TLA here], had just gone through after hiring [insert name of company that had recently changed its name from “_____ Software” to “_____ Strategy.”] The upshot of said strategic consultancy and rebranding was that the company should change its name to [insert different TLA here]. Let me say for the record, I couldn’t tell the difference, and the value of the not-mentioned “strategy” company dropped like a stone in my estimation.
  • Anecdote deux: in the early months following a corporate merger, I was being pressed to complete a rebranding exercise despite my estimation that it would take a year to develop the new (merged) corporate identity adequately enough to brand properly. We compressed it down to six months and developed the beginnings of a great brand strategy, which was ultimately never followed through because the initial deliverables were mistaken for the whole package, and those who took it on afterward simply didn’t “get it” no matter what I said. At least I won the discussion about whether or not to change the company name… I said “don’t do it,” since you’ll lose all the brand equity that’s been built up so far, and it’s more significant than you realize. And all of this was with a company that should have known better.

These are certain symptoms of some kind of branding disorder, I would say. When did branding become synonymous with advertising? “Alright, the campaign’s over, time for a new brand.” A brand is somewhat akin to corporate character and personality, but somebody’s been spreading the idea that schizophrenia is a good marketing strategy. Sometimes, I swear, people will buy anything. In this microwave society of quarter-to-quarter business thinking, it’s certainly appealing to take a lengthy process and turn it into an instant package. Call it what you will, it just ain’t necessarily so. In this sense, Conley is correct,1 and the underlying assumption is false: existing companies aren’t always in need of a new brand, and if they think a fresh logo and a splash of paint is going to solve some other underlying disorder, they are sadly mistaken.

I don’t know… maybe I’m wrong, all just a misinformed offshoot of the ranchers in the family who told me that “branding” means something else entirely. Perhaps I should introduce some of the ranchers to the rebranding addicts and see what happens next in the herd. Mmmmooooooooo!


  1. There’s another sense in which he’s incorrect: you can (re)brand yourself, just as individuals might undergo some form of behaviour modification therapy. The mechanics of a proper (re)branding process will have to be a separate and future post. [back]