What is a brand?

When a brand is owning the thoughts in someone’s head ✎ By Wayne K. Spear

It’s a big question, but the simplest (and, I hope, not simplistic) answer is that a brand is the experience of a customer in the presence of a product.

Have you noticed those smiling, laughing people in Coca-Cola ads? There’s nothing remarkable about water, CO2, and high-fructose corn syrup. Combined, they produce an unexceptional, sugary drink.

But love, belonging, and joy are remarkable. We crave them. So every Coke ad sells them to us. And it’s the same with everything. Every successful brand in history has sold basic human desires—the stuff we’re hard-wired to need and want.

Affection, approval, acceptance, love, security, hope, sex, beauty.

Then, in the 2000s, we began removing the products.

I’m sure you’ve seen that viral post which started at TechCrunch:

Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.

Maybe what’s happening is that brand is now entirely separable from product.

There has always been a degree of separation. The product was never the brand. The experience of the customer in the presence of the product was the brand.

Increasingly, however, the product is someone else’s business.

Here’s an interesting way of looking at it, in a Seth Godin post “Templates for organic and viral growth”:

Invent a connection venue or format, but give up some control

Show it can be done, but don’t insist that it be done precisely the same way you did it

Establish a cultural norm

Get out of the way …

Many of Seth’s examples are not businesses, but his description is nonetheless relevant to the TechCrunch post.

The idea is that every time someone wonders “What happened to that girl in high school?” they’ll think Facebook.

Every time someone thinks “I need a cab,” they’ll think Uber.

Every time someone thinks “I’m going to Australia and I need a place to stay,” they’ll think Airbnb.

None of these companies delivers the product or service. They have, as Seth puts it, got out of the way.

Their brand is ownership of a cultural norm—even of a thought itself, as the examples above suggest.

Imagine if every time someone thought about x [“I wonder what happened to my high-school girlfriend”], it evoked your brand [Facebook]. And then a stranger far away produced and delivered the product [your high-school girlfriend, in this example] under the umbrella of your brand.

Instant connection, all unbeknownst to you. And you get paid.

Invent a way for people to connect, show them it can be done, establish it as a cultural norm, and get out of the way.

Branding, 21st-Century style.

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