Let’s lose the word ‘brand’ from marketing

Brand strategy head at Loud, Waqas Tahir, writes that the only way to gain meaning from the B-word is to strike it completely.

The word ‘brand’ is our biggest impediment to effective marketing and the problem lies with the vagueness of the term.  

When we talk about a brand campaign, we don’t quite know exactly what we’re talking about as we would – for example – with a retail campaign. Based on how the industry talks about a brand campaign we can derive a set of negative definitions, i.e., we can say that a brand campaign is; non-product, non-promotional, non-short-term and often a non-budget-friendly campaign.  

To paraphrase Malcolm Gladwell, the word brand is like the word Africa. You know the general direction of travel but you’re not sure if you’re going to South Africa or Somalia.  

There is no positive articulation or consensus about what a brand campaign really is and therefore there isn’t an established understanding of what sort of skillset and agency is required to develop such campaigns beyond biggish film-loving creative agencies. 

Hence Brand, as a word, has become the industry’s pisspot for bad ideas. Brand marketing has been defined as emotional marketing, purpose-driven marketing, trust marketing, personality marketing – this list of unsubstantiated ideas has grown on the feeling that whatever brand marketing is, it’s some sort of non-product marketing. This final suggestion is the seminal villain and the topic deserves its own airtime but all I’ll say for now is that whatever brand marketing is, its goal is never anything other than the marketing of the product. Don’t hide the product in your campaigns, don’t talk about anything else, and – Dear Clients – don’t shy away from demanding that it be shown loudly and proudly. 

Furthermore the word brand is in fact such a magnet for non-sense that attaching it to any area of marketing seems to expel common sense from that discipline. As an example, consider brand research which due to the addition of the word brand will shift the goal post from understanding a concrete consumer need to discovering a profound secret about humanity.  

Hence you can commission projective exercises to discover a brand’s archetype. I’ve even read about hypnosis to discover the secret brand code buried in the sub-conscious. At a quant level you can track imagery data that is not remotely relevant to purchase decisions and decide that a brand needs to be seen as rebellious to be considered adequate for dishwashing.  

Let me be clear, I’m not saying that there isn’t anything of importance in the type of marketing that we call ‘Brand Marketing’. There absolutely is but we need a more precise term that provides a specific destination and not just a vague direction.   

As an alternative word perhaps Byron Sharp’s idea of ‘Distinctive Assets’ is a good replacement. I’m not saying that it’s the term that we need to use, but I love the term for of its boring concreteness which can guide good intentions and repel bad instincts. If you’re interested in performance, you will love building assets. If you’re interested in purpose, then you will hate this word.   

Another alternative is trademark. When a brief asks to develop a trademark, we know exactly what is being asked for i.e. a visual or written mark that can be used for trading purposes.  

The simplest and already-in-use word that I like for this job is a mnemonic. The dictionary definition is so concrete that it’s impossible to misread it. My favourite is Oxford’s who define it as “a word, sentence, poem, etc. that helps you to remember something”.  

I like it because some might see my suggestion as a tasteless redefinition of brand for mascots and slogans. It isn’t. It can be an anthem or a photography style, but it must be an identifiable and memory-leeching device. It can’t be a subdued element buried in the undertones for the sake of taste and craft.  

Waqas Tahir is the head of ‘brand’ strategy at Loud. 


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