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Derrida on the Stoa: Branding as Myth

May 11, 2011

thinking: a brand is not something you can design.

You may be saying to yourself: “But we hear about branding all of the time. Lots of companies do branding.”

They might think they do, but they don’t. No one company can do branding, for themselves or for anyone else.

So if branding is not a service anyone can offer, but branding is indeed something applied to a company, then who does it?

To a degree, you do. Your friends do it, and everyone else in the world for that matter, each in their own way. We do it too, not as a company but rather as individuals just like you. We certainly wouldn’t dream of billing for it, that’s for sure. Here’s why:

A ‘brand’ is a person’s perception of a product, service, experience, or organization.
(Marty Neumeier, “The Brand Gap”)

A ‘brand’ lives not in the hands of a given company, but rather in the minds of the public. A brand is an abstraction, a fuzzy notion shaped in individual minds by an unaccountable variety of preconceptions and ideals that we – anyone – can’t possibly predict or control. We here at eleven-seventeen specifically avoid the term ‘brand’ when talking about our work for this very reason, and stick with what we actually do design: identity.

We design identity in two parts, one following from the other: first, we craft the various verbal expressions of who the group or company is and aspires to be, what we call a core identity; and then we design the graphical expressions of that identity, a visual identity. The result of a thorough identity development process will no doubt be a brand in time, though after persistent, consistent and directed communications, interactions, and experiences. But even then, no company brands itself; rather, it’s the public that does the branding.

Having said that, a relevant and expressive identity properly communicated can have a powerful affect on public perception and therefore branding, we completely agree. Many companies go to great lengths to make sure that they are perceived as a certain ‘kind’ of company to a well defined demographic, and you may be surprised at just how successful this has been. The Coca-Cola Company, for example, owns one of the most highly respected brands in the world (and the most highly valued), and yet is at the same time considered to be one of the most egregious corporations in modern history.

actions speak louder than words

Despite the most strategic planning and measured control, a company’s brand is often trumped by their actions, good or bad, intentional or not. Think of GAP last decade. Or think of BP more recently. For a truly complicated and divisive brand, think of the Roman Catholic Church. For a curious example, think of Timberland boots and their completely unintended adoption by hip-hop culture (which has always been ignored by Timberland, who has never, ever actively catered to the urban African-American demographic).

The Timberland website makes no reference in any way to their (former) status as the de facto hip-hop fashion boot. In fact, the identity is decidedly 'anti-urban', and uniformly 'pale'.

Some companies try to change market perception (or, more generally, public perception) by taking on a new visual identity to varying degrees of success. Think of Philip Morris, who sought to avoid the effects of strong negative public opinion after being found guilty of suppressing the carcinogenic effects of cigarette smoke by ‘rebranding’ itself as Altria in 2003, which of course didn’t work; Philip Morris had been more accurately ‘branded’ by the public as a blatantly dishonest corporation who knowingly manufactured and sold a carcinogenic product, and changing their name and logo wasn’t enough to make anyone forget. Ironically, the move devalued their brand even more. Obviously, this is an extreme example of branding as deeply unethical.

branding is unethical?

It depends. Take marketing for example. The ostensible purpose of marketing is to simply tell people about a product or service from which they might benefit, and from an ethical standpoint that’s a good thing – you’re potentially helping people while greasing the wheels of commerce.

But, if ‘telling people’ moves beyond that simple goal, things could become ethically fuzzy. For instance, if a product is being marketed merely to increase sales volume while not providing anything of value (think of, well, most things on store shelves), some might argue that you’re crossing an ethical line. If the marketing communications are making false claims about the capabilities of the product, most would call that unethical. If the marketing effort is an attempt to convince consumers to buy something actually harmful to them (the Altria example above is obvious, but you could also include junk food, fast food, and some pharmaceutical or industrial farming companies along with them), well I don’t think anyone could reasonably deny that as unethical.

I suppose coughing can't possibly hurt after your throat's been removed due to Laryngeal cancer. (photo via Flickr)

If branding is defined as an active attempt on the part of a company to influence public perception, then it is, like marketing, coercion. Coercion isn’t unethical in and of itself; we do it all the time and is a perfectly reasonable means of getting things done. Heck, paying people to work is coercion, and that’s a fundamental basis of our economy, society, and culture. But branding could be considered unethical if what’s being communicated is an intentional attempt to characterize a company as something other than what it actually is.

Altria is an extreme example, so let’s consider a relatively harmless example, like your average clothing store in the mall. If that store wished to attract, say, a youthful, fashion conscious (and therefore ‘spendy’) demographic, there would be a strong temptation to ‘rebrand’ itself as a the right kind of store for that group. That brand identity could easily be crafted, no problem. But if what the consumer actually experiences in-store (e.g. the clothing selection and quality, the decor and music, the staff and customer service) doesn’t line up with the way in which the store presents itself, then we have a problem – a real ethical problem. The store had intentionally misled a targeted group of people into thinking it was a certain kind of store for their own gain. Sure, no one gets cancer or emphysema, but misrepresentation of anything breeds distrust in the marketplace. If you think of the marketplace as part of our larger community, as we do, then it becomes especially insidious because you now cannot trust certain members in your own community. That’s not the kind of community in which anyone wants to live.

Ultimately, where the ethical line is drawn depends on what you’re comfortable with and what the audience will expect or even tolerate. That’s a complicated and complex problem that hasn’t been ‘solved’ per se (and probably never will be), but it should be a consideration of those who consider themselves to be involved in the work of branding – even if you think you can brand a company, you should consider well if you should try to brand a company.

warning: impending Postmodern philosophy tie-in

vive la ‘differance’

Ethical dimensions aside, there is this larger problem of actually thinking a company can successfully brand itself. The problem, ultimately, is one of the impossibility of real meaning.

Jacques Derrida said some silly things. However, what he had to say about the interpretations of the things people put in front of each other, of the signs we make – the things we say, the things we write, the various ways we communicate – is generally considered to be bang on: no one controls interpretation – not even the ‘maker’ of the sign, the communicator in question. True meaning and communication is impossible. It’s that gap between implication and inference people fall into several times a day; just think of the last argument you had with your friend or partner. The best we can hope for, and what human beings do naturally, is to infer just enough intent in a sign to get by. It’s like any other sense we have – we filter, fill in gaps, draw conclusions without enough data – we ‘make do’ simply because if we didn’t, we’d become overwhelmed and die.


Jacques Derrida: "No one understands me..."

Derrida coined the word ‘differance’ to shed light on this phenomenon. It refers (in an intentionally vague way) to the gaps in interpretation between the intentions of the communication, the communication itself, the deferring meanings of words, the inferences of the receiver, the further confusion of meanings, and a host of other cascading deferrences and irreconcilable differences. If communicating certain truth is your goal, Derrida would say you’d have more luck teaching an apple to drive a car.

Granted, there are heroic attempts at this communication goal every day in the ‘branding industry’, and many of these are pretty successful. You see, understanding some these vagaries of interpretation and nuances of ethnography will get you far; you can game the system, but it’s still not a guarantee. Ask BP. Of course, we must always come back to ethics. Ask BP about that too.

warning: impending Hellenistic philosophy tie-in

know who you are, say what you know

One of the great lessons of the Stoic tradition of philosophy is to know what your limits are and work within them; control what you can, and don’t even try to control the rest because it’s a waste of effort. Applied to design, and more specifically to identity, a company can indeed control what ‘kind’ of company it is, how it ‘behaves’, how it presents itself, and the various channels it chooses to communicate to its ideal demographic. Beyond that, any sense of control is ultimately illusion, any desire for control is ultimately folly, and any promise of control is ultimately a lie. No one can completely control what your market thinks, and that’s especially true among younger demographics who are now being taught critical media studies in grade school as well as being naturally more media savvy due to their immersion in a near-total media environment. Now, more than ever, branding is being proved a myth through its increasing impotence and irrelevance.

The best and most assured way to gain the respect of your market – and hopefully encourage a brand to be proud of – is to focus on your core identity. Know what you do and where, who you’re doing it for and when, why it matters, why it’s better (or isn’t), and then go from there. If you say these things clearly, honestly, and with deep understanding, you’re off to a good start. Build communications that matter, execute them well, and over time build a community that you trust and who trusts you. Then maybe – just maybe – your company will be branded the way you had hoped.

But there’s no guarantee. //

12 comments on “Derrida on the Stoa: Branding as Myth”

  1. Good read, especially the post-modern segments.

    I claim to do “Identity + Branding” which I always clarify by saying “Basically I design logos and put them on stuff” so I equate “branded items” to what you would call “graphical expressions”, and I like the term “Identity + Branding” because “Identity + Identity-iying” would be cumbersome and non-sensical. :D

    My sense is that people seem to understand the interpretation of the way I use “branding” but that may be because I’ve had so much experience in physically adhering logos onto clothing and promotional products. You “brand” an item in the same way that a farmer “brands” his cattle. He puts his logo on them.

    Now when “Branding Executives” who work for a “Branding Firm” talk about “Branding”, I see it as an overlapping focus on those areas important to cultivating a positive broad consumer experience. And we already had a perfectly cromulent (derp!) term for this: P.R. (or Public Relations). Can you make everyone interpret your company or product the way you want them to? No, there will always be dissenters even with the best of strategies but haven’t we already set a precedent in our society and our economy that transmitting messages affect thinking and that more and less effective ways of doing this exist? Certainly, there must be a positive correlation between companies who take on “Brand Management” (or P.R.) and positive customer experience. Just like there’s a positive correlation between marketing efforts and sales, or finance reports and stock quotes. And we certainly are well aware of the effects of propaganda. So I feel like it’s fair to say that “branding”, while not a perfect science, isn’t a myth, and I think you can charge people to do it… But I still don’t like the way the term “branding” is being used so I’m taking it back! :P

  2. But then you’re talking to the guy who’s #1 pet peeve is when designers use “creative” as a noun (e.g. “I’m a creative”, “We’re creatives”, “Have a look at my creative”). What’s your take on that, DH?

  3. Daniel says:

    Hey Travis! Thanks for the comments! I suppose what you’re highlighting here – that there are a variety of uses of the words ‘brand’ and ‘branding’ – is perhaps one reason I felt so compelled to become vocal about the issue, maybe be a little provocative. I’ve been annoyed with the term’s misappropriation, where it’s used in ways never really intended. The breaking point was when Jian Ghomeshi started asking guests about their ‘brand’… cromulent! (:D)

    Now that I think of it – and you do me a favor in pointing it three times (‘branding’, ‘cromulent’, and ‘creative’) – is that language is a living thing, subject to the whims of culture. Words are invented (cromulent) or misappropriated (branding) or used in an entirely new way (creative), and these things are done all the time. New conventions become old ones and next thing you know ‘gay’ means ‘homosexual’ and not ‘celebratory’.

    So, on one hand, I suppose I shouldn’t get so knotted up about how other people use the word ‘branding’ – it’s just language and culture doing their thing.

    But, on the other hand, having consistency of meaning is really super when you’re trying to be clear with other people. I find it hard enough to explain to most people what we do here at eleven-seventeen, and perhaps nailing this down might help a little.

    PS – I’m indifferent on using ‘creative’ as a noun. Isn’t that odd?
    PPS – Branding *is* a myth. So there.

  4. I’m picking and choosing here. I’m pretty neutral about “brand” because I kind of get what people think they mean (a hodgepodge of business functions focused on influencing public opinion, that’s my take anyway) and I guess I feel like it’s harmless but then I really don’t like the phrase “I’m a creative”. I accept that language is alive and if it’s caught on, it’s caught on and if it’s helpful for me to communicate what I do by saying “I’m a creative” then I might use it but for now, *I* perceive it as potentially elitist and pretentious… But that’s just me. Kayla has argued with me that she likes the title and I certainly associate her more with authenticity, so maybe I’ll eventually be swayed.

    I might be fighting a losing battle but I still like using the term “branding” as the implementation of taking ones logo and applying that to physical (or digital) materials. It seems anyway like that’s how that term is thrown around in the world of corporate apparel and promotional materials.

    One last word that I’ve finally settled into: “Art” or “Artwork” for pretty much any commercial design. When I started at Sportop I felt awkward calling my designs “artwork”, especially when it was just the word “SECURITY” in Arial Black, or a school’s logo that I traced. Now at Impact, it doesn’t phase me and it doesn’t seem to phase customers.

  5. Daniel says:

    For a definition of ‘branding’, I recommend Mr. Neumeier’s definition because it is a standard (and thus the reason I reference it). When larger corporations spend millions to set up brand management divisions, it’s this definition they have in mind, as confused as they are. I’d say you’d lose that battle if you stick with your own definition. ;)

    Interesting you bring up ‘art’. This is a constant debate – it’s reared its head again recently within the AIGA – whether or not commercial graphic design should be considered ‘art’ or not, and if some can and some can’t where the line ought to be drawn. For a lot of people – professionals and clients – it seems like a stretch. For me, it depends on the day, and specifically how cranky I am.

  6. chris says:

    interesting read — and I’m totally nitpicking here, but your definition of coercion is troubling. coercion is forcing someone to do something against their will; paying people to work is mutually-beneficial trade.

    “a brand is a promise. a good brand is a promise kept.” I’ve always liked that. you can promise all you want with your brand-crafting, but if it doesn’t hold when the rubber meets the road, then it’s all a waste.

  7. Daniel says:

    Hey Chris, thanks for the comment! The coercion definition issue you raise is, again, another example of the differences in meaning. Sigh. :) And around we go…

    My understanding of coercion draws from John Stuart Mill’s use of it (and some other more contemporary thinkers), which is expressed from a perspective of radical liberty. I sheepishly admit that it’s not a common definition, which is a little embarrassing for me after I just criticized Travis for using an uncommon definition of ‘branding’. Lulz. Well, since I’ve been caught with my pants are down, I may as well try to explain myself (and hopefully persuade you).

    Mill argues that any person who does not or cannot make a free decision is being coerced, since any decision that is not made freely must be made due to the powerful influence of others – which can include another individual, the state, civic institutions, private interests like businesses, or the confluence of any or all of these. When I say ‘powerful influence’, it’s more than just particularly glib persuasion or reasoning, but only just; it’s compelling someone to do something, especially if there is a harmful consequence for doing otherwise.

    Mill’s definition of coercion is certainly more ‘expansive’ than the common definition, even within the tradition of philosophy, which (as you suggest) often requires ‘force’ – typically physical force – as a defining factor. But Mill would argue that our social, cultural, political, and economic institutions and traditions exact a force no less powerful than any physical force on our ability to make free, informed decisions without fear of consequences.

    Mill cites the decision to marry as coercive (he was writing in the middle of 19th century) due to the powerful influence of cultural, social, religious, and even political forces in this regard – and he recognized that is was especially problematic for women due to a functional lack of personal and economic liberty and autonomy. Getting married was effectively a necessity, since to not be married was taboo; get married or become an outcast and subject of derision. Marriage, for Mill, was just one example of what he called the “the despotism of custom”, or what some have called “the tyranny of the masses”.

    Similarly, working for money is, for the vast majority of people, not an option. Either you make money or you can’t provide yourself and your dependents with even the basic requirements for living – food, shelter, and clothing. Further, there is a stigma attached to being ‘unemployed’ in a production-oriented culture such as ours, no doubt affected by the political and economic targeting of ‘unemployment’ as something to be measured and battled. Even further, our lives are so intensely focused around our work from the moment we enter the school system that it defines who we are at a fundamental level (most of us, anyway); we grow up to ‘be’ doctors or firemen or scientists, not just work as them. Add to this the notion that what we can get paid for our work is central to the path we choose; it’s not whether or not we get paid, but rather how much.

    So, I don’t agree that paying people for work is simply ‘mutually-beneficial trade’, since it doesn’t adequately account for this larger political, economic, and cultural context, which is so powerful (again, for most people) that there is no reasonable or safe option to not work.

    Did I convince you?

    I like your brand quote. :)

  8. chris says:

    I think I understand your position — that we are coerced by society to work, with the threat of starvation and the stigma of being unemployed forcing our hand.

    My view is that employment is a two-party contract* — employer and employee. Sure societal pressures and forces are present, but that’s not the same as being coerced into working for a particular person or a particular job. Perhaps if the employer knows that unemployment benefits are coming to an end and they exploit the fact… but unlikely. The threat that defines coercion needs to originate from one of the parties in the contract, not from a third party or society.

    (* oh crap, the state does like to get involved in all matters of employment, so maybe it’s not just two parties… let’s set that aside.)

    It sounds like you’re saying that employers and society are colluding against workers to make this coercion work. And it seems that by that definition (or a slippery extension) no action is ever done without coercion. Everything we do is shaped by societal, political, economic, cultural forces, some more powerfully than others, but if the influence is there how can we be sure any decision is our own to make, any action our own to take?

  9. chris says:

    Just for further definition/clarification — in my world, coercion is unethical. Getting someone to do something under threat of force; I’m not sure where you’ll find a defense of that.

  10. Daniel says:

    I think you’ll find a defense for coercion when it would be required to prevent one person from harming another. Our country’s laws are essentially coercion – enforced penalties for harmful actions, or enforced ‘incentives’ for preventing harm. There’s a whole extended debate around what kind of enforcement is reasonable, most concluding that the one being coerced shouldn’t be worse off afterwards.

    Coercion is also a common and, some would say, indispensible parenting technique.

  11. Daniel says:

    I wouldn’t go so far as ‘collusion’… though some of my conspiracy theorist friends would ;). After all, it is within certain parties’ interests to maintain a culture (and economy) of scarcity.

    The point we have come to here is the classic question of whether or not we have free will. My personal feeling is that we do, that even though our entire existence as individuals is shaped by forces external to our own ability to reason (from our own chemical biology to global economics) and our ability to make any real choices is therefore limited, the acts of deliberation and choosing are still there.

    These various external forces, however, can end up arranged (intentionally or not) in such a way as to effectively remove choice where there could be some, and that’s when we can start talking about coercion. Yes, we can say there is always a choice; the young 19th century woman in Mill’s marriage example did not *have* to get married. She could have struck off and followed her own path, but with extreme stubbornness, at tremendous effort, and at great risk to her person. It would also have taken a certain kind of personality and wisdom, with a broad perspective to able to recognize even the possibility of choice. Mill was saying (and I agree with him) that it shouldn’t be that way, that everyone should be able to make informed choices, free from fear, and so long as they do not harm others.

  12. chris says:

    “everyone should be able to make informed choices, free from fear, and so long as they do not harm others.”

    I think we can both agree on that. We would probably quibble on what harm means (positive vs negative obligations), and on some of the other details I’m just feeling too argumentative lately, probably because I’ve been consuming a 10-part lecture series on Austrian economics this past week (Mises podcasts)… and my head is swimming at some of the concepts (not all supportive, fwiw). So probably better that I don’t argue for argument’s sake.

    BTW there is actually a movement that specifically opposes coercive parenting — Take Children Seriously (I won’t link, you can google). I just stumbled on it today; I’m not advocating, but it sounds interesting…