Halo insight 23
September 2020
5 Mins
Paul Bailey Brand Strategy Director

Halo In Conversation with – Nicholas Ind (part one)

Brand is about meaning and identity, but what happens when the audience don’t believe that the actions of the business really reflect what they say the brand means?

When it comes to meaning, who has control – the business or the audience? Businesses generally still consider their brand an internal, proprietary resource – one which they have control of. However, in a previous interview with Patrick Hanlon we discussed the idea that businesses only ever really had an illusion of control. That a meaning of a brand is really shaped by both the business and people – and importantly what they agree the meaning of the brand is.

This ‘agreement’ of meaning becomes problematic when a business is deemed to be acting inauthentically. That when people feel a business is lacking integrity and is not really committed to a cause, or a purpose, that ‘agreement’ is broken. The brands who are often cited as having a strong social meaning are those with a clarity of purpose and actions – such as Patagonia or Lush – that have been proven over time. When someone like Pepsi attempts to co-opt a social movement, as in the Kylie Jenner advert, it doesn’t go down too well.

Nicholas Ind is author of numerous books on brand, and Professor at Kristiania University College, Oslo. He is currently working on more research which is looking at the importance of authenticity and purpose to the audience of a brand. Many of his previous books cover the topics around how people become invested in shaping the brand, and the value of the brand to them. Whilst studying the role of transparency for brands, one of the books I referenced was Nicholas’ ‘Beyond Branding’, in which he looks at how transparency and integrity are changing the world of brands. We spoke to Nicholas Ind about the role of brand in our networked world, and what the challenges are that businesses now face in terms of their brand?

Continually creating value together

I started by asking Nicholas about co-creation. Prahalad and Ramaswamy coined this term some years ago, but its increased popularity has also seen it be misused and misunderstood. To me, co-creation is about the business and people jointly and continually creating ‘value’ – whatever that value might be – so I asked Nicholas to give his thoughts on the usefulness and importance of co-creation to businesses.

The stakeholder coming together with the organisation to create value. – Nicholas Ind

Brand – economic, social & cultural

Brands are economic, but they’re also social spaces. – Nicholas Ind

In his 2003 book ‘Beyond Branding’, it is suggested that rather than objects of exchange brands can be viewed as the ‘sum total of relationships among stakeholders’ (Meyers in Ind (ed.), 2003: 23). We discuss how this accumulative and networked effect – akin to the idea of Actor Network Theory – helps brands be increasingly considered social and cultural as well as economic. Nicholas discusses this possible shift and whether the concept of brand has moved away from its original economic remit.

Economic cannot be seen independently of the social and cultural elements, they all go together. – Nicholas Ind

Control what you can, let go of what you can’t

The idea of co-creation opens up the debate around ‘ownership’ of the brand. Of course, businesses like to believe they own the brand, and in terms of the physical attributes they certainly do. But if brand is, at least in good part, about meaning then is it fair to say that brand should be considered as ‘shared cultural property’ (Holt, 2004; Cova and Pace, 2006). We discuss with Nicholas what it means for the brand when the stakeholders involved (eg particularly where people are very passionate, eg a football club) are in conflict.

The reality is, your brand is going to be co-created whether you decide to manage it or not. – Nicholas Ind

Emergent brands

As the productive role of people has increased – such as immaterial labour, peer production, prosumers – brands have shifted from being internal, proprietary resources to shared entities. This ‘co-creative’, dynamic and more emergent nature does bring its challenges for businesses – one of which being the control of the meaning of the brand. We asked Nicholas about how people leading a brand might work in a more fluid way – and whether the skill of listening had become even more vital. He gives us some examples and discusses how well Lego work fluidly with their audiences.

More in-depth processes of engaging with your customers gets you into a deeper level where you can really begin to listen and learn together with them. – Nicholas Ind

So that’s the first part of our chat with Nicholas Ind. In the second half of our chat we discuss top-down and bottom-up approaches to co-creation, moving from shareholder primacy to a stakeholder view, and introduce the idea of ‘conscientious brands’. Continue to part 2.

Many thanks to Nicholas for his time and expertise. For further reading on brand, I’d recommend picking up one of Nicholas’ books on the subject, which you’ll find here. His latest book is Co-creating Brands: Brand management from a Co-Creative perspective, published by Bloomsbury (2019)