Brain-dead branding?

Is branding making our organizations dumber?
Is branding making our organizations dumber?

This article about organizational culture was making the rounds on Facebook a couple of weeks ago. It’s a longish read, but if you’re interested in the way organizations work, you might want to peruse it. And if you’re involved in the work of branding or marketing, then yes, you really should take the time to read Stupefied: How organisations enshrine collective stupidity and employees are rewarded for checking their brains at the office door.

The author, Andre Spicer, is also the co-author of a book about this topic. So, as you might expect of anyone with a book to sell, Spicer argues strongly to support his point of view.

But Spicer’s article raises some valid points. When I read this — “Organisations hire smart people, but then positively encourage them not to use their intelligence — I found myself nodding in vigorous agreement (good sheep that I am). Even more head nods evoked by this: “Asking difficult questions or thinking in greater depth is seen as a dangerous waste. Talented employees quickly learn to use their significant intellectual gifts only in the most narrow and myopic ways.” And this: “Those who learn how to switch off their brains are rewarded.”

Spicer levels a sharp critique on the way modern organizations strive to imitate each other in the name of “following best practice,” and how they chase management fads, embrace the cult of leadership and create stifling, bureaucratic cultures that turn workers’ brains to mush.

Nod. Nod. Nod.

There is much to agree with here.

But then I came to this passage, which gave my bobble-headed self pause.

Another particularly rich source of stupidity in organisations is the deep belief in the power of brands. Many organisations seem to assume that, just by changing the signage, it’s possible to transform the entire company. Sadly, this is almost always wishful thinking on the part of senior executives.

Hey! I resemble those remarks.

Spicer’s critique of branding may apply to the corporate world. But branding in my field — higher education — is different. Right?

We saw costly rebranding initiatives that involved changing the logo of an organisation, but little else. The University of Western Sydney spent millions to transform itself by becoming ‘Western Sydney University’.

Umm, okay — one example from higher ed doesn’t mean that all of higher ed branding is silly, right?

Thankfully, this was the only example of rebranding from the higher ed sector. Still, there are issues raised here that could apply to academia. Let’s look a bit more at this critique of branding.

Often, this fascination with branding can be little more than a distraction. In one company we studied, we met a group of marketing executives whose job it was to sell a range of products including toothpaste. Naturally, they were very enthusiastic about the magical power of branding. One executive told us ‘you live and die’ by your brand. But when we asked them more about what actually mattered in selling toothpaste, we were told that consumers will ‘just pick anything on a shelf that’s on promotion’ and that ‘people aren’t really interested in toothpaste’. All that counted, they admitted, was the price.

Toothpaste is a commodity, and there is very little to differentiate one brand from another. There’s the flavor, the claims of whitening, the use of baking soda. But all in all, it’s toothpaste.

Can the same be said for the college experience? Is higher education in danger of becoming commoditized, nothing more than products on a shelf with some surface-level statements of differentiation? Some might argue that we are already there. With nearly 4,800 colleges and universities in the U.S. alone, we’re giving toothpaste a run for its money.

We found another particularly tragic case of rebranding at British Airways in the late 1990s. Following a strategic change, senior executives decided to make the company more globally oriented. To do this, they rebranded British Airways as ‘The world’s favourite airline’ and replaced the Union flag on its planes’ tailfins with ‘world art’ designs. The change sparked widespread public outcry: even the former prime minister Margaret Thatcher entered the fray, covering a model plane featuring the new designs with her handkerchief. In only a matter of weeks, the airline reverted to its old livery. Although little had changed, millions had been spent in the process.

Well, this is nothing new. And this is not so much about branding as it is about the surface-level aspect of branding: to wit, the logo. I’ll bet you could name a few similarly spectacular failures from the corporate world: the Gap logo redesign of a few years back and the London Olympics logo of 2012 come to mind for me. These are unfortunate — and expensive — missteps, and they indicate a misunderstanding of the craft of branding.

Spicer’s brief commentary on branding supports his overall argument that organizations do foolish things, and so-called rebranding initiatives are among those foolish things. But the initiatives Spicer points out are little more than campaigns to refresh a logo, burnish an image or alter a university name. (Disclosure: The institution that employs me did a name change in 2007-2008, and I’d like to think we took a smart approach to it.) There’s more to branding than that. Branding is a long-term commitment, not a quick fix, and require a solid strategy and time to take hold.

Brand-building is a marathon, not a sprint. And just like any smart marathoner, a smart brand manager starts with a strategy and builds from there. Short-term approaches to branding are often short-sighted as well.

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

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