This book on branding is a peculiar animal.
Argumentative, poorly organised and with a distracting number of typing errors, it makes for a difficult read. Which is a real pity because author Jonathan Salem Baskin has a number of very useful things to say about the world of branding. But he’s the annoying boy in class, the show-off who’s so determined to make the rest of us sit up and listen that we’re in danger in missing out on many of the sharper observations he has to offer.
Baskin begins by announcing a shift in the world of branding, a new heresy to the established orthodoxy, and declares himself its high priest. However, for much of the early part of the book, it seems that the orthodoxy he’s challenging is ‘advertising-as-branding’ as practised by large agencies, rather than branding itself, which can distract from the value of much of what he has to say.
But the real challenge is his assertion, repeated throughout, that his represents a brave new world of thinking. I’m not so certain that much of his thinking is new; it’s just that those who ply their trade in the great shop-windows of the world largely ignore it. For many business-owners, much of what Baskin has to write will seem common sense.
After dismissing most of what passes for branding as useless (aha! he thought that might get your attention), Baskin proposes a new behaviour-based model instead. He argues that most branding activity is geared towards achieving results that have little to do with sales and suggests that, “corporations ask nothing of branding other than glorified name recognition”.
He accuses branding professionals of failing to distinguish between communications success and commercial failure and of resisting the only measures that truly matter for branding: behaviours that lead to sales. For Baskin, “the starting point of branding, should be the end-point of your business strategy: selling stuff”. This makes great sense, but it’s hardly new.
What is more novel is Baskin’s suggestion that “maybe branding is a structural approach to the enterprise as a sustainable, adaptable one-room branding and marketing machine”. He goes on to liken the successful brand to a swarm of bees or hive of ants “consciously alert and buzzing with behaviours”.
Now this is very interesting stuff indeed. Because he sees branding as being based around a series of events that make or break the enterprise, Baskin suggests that brands must adapt to the experiences of their customers in the same way that certain insects respond to changes in their environment. Apparently, bees and ants don’t communicate in a ‘let me tell you what I’ve just learned’ sort of way; instead, they react to the behaviours of others in their group and adapt their own behaviours accordingly. Baskin says that brand-managers must move beyond telling their customers what to think and behave instead in ways that lead to measurable outcomes.
Baskin then produces his trump card and suggests that the best way in which to interact with customers through the brand is to adopt the models used by the gamers who make and play alternative reality games. These game-plans have five elements that he thinks are relevant to brand management: Goals (or payoff), Context, Narrative Flow, Tools and Winners & Losers. He believes that successful companies are already using these one way or another and argues that for them “branding is experience, and the behaviours look a lot more like playing a game than engaging with any traditional branding campaign”.
Finally, Baskin puts down the failure of brands in the twenty-first century to the shortening of what he describes as a “brand interlude”, the period between expectations and experience. Back in the old days of traditional brand-management (which Baskin likes to compare to a séance where branding clairvoyants called out to the ether for signs that their diversions were working), it took much longer for woolly assertions to be found out. Now, thanks to the speeding up of communications, this interlude has grown shorter and shorter, meaning that brands that promise one thing and don’t deliver on it get found out much more quickly.
If only Baskin had taken his own advice and produced a book that made it easier for his readers to get to the good ideas and take action on them. As it is, this book is a struggle to read and only a few hardy souls who are prepared to see past Baskin’s clever-boy routine will make it through to the finish.
Branding Only Works on Cattle: The New Way to Get Known (and drive your competitors crazy) by Jonathan Salem Baskin
Publisher: John Wiley & Sons
(This review first appeared in Marketing Age, the magazine of the Marketing Institute of Ireland).