Halo insight 15
May 2021
5 Mins
Paul Bailey Brand Strategy Director

Without Shared Meaning There Is No Brand

Imagine for one minute – you are the owner of a business. You have created a product, but you know you need to be more than just a business selling a product. There’s many businesses out there selling similar products, that pretty much do the same thing as yours. No, it’s not enough for people to buy a product from you ­– they need to want to buy your product, You need a brand.

So what will move your business from selling a product to having a brand? Of course, you will need to be able to be identified – being recognised is vital. But once people know it’s you, what will they know you for? To have a brand you need to mean something in the minds of your audience. Now I’m not referring to social purpose here – what I’m referring to is that you need to mean something to people over and above the functional utility of your product. Let’s take cars as an example. Fundamentally, a car gets you from A to B, whenever you want. All cars do this (admittedly some do this better or faster than others), but we know that not all cars are the same. Different car manufacturer brands mean different things. Volvos are safe, Toyotas are reliable, Ferraris are flash, and Teslas are… well, I’m not sure what they are really.

My point is, what takes a business from having a product to having a brand is meaning.

But it goes further than that, because meaning is complicated. Meaning is contextual, relational, and often individual. What something means to me, may not be what it means to you. And this is at the heart of the concept of brand. Because it’s not enough to say that brand is about meaning. If something meant a different thing to everyone, then it simply isn’t a brand. If I thought Volvos were safe, but the next person thought they were fast, and the next person thought they were rebellious, then what is the Volvo brand? There wouldn’t be one.

The simple thing is, the concept of a brand can only exist through ‘shared meaning’.

For a brand to exist, there must be some degree of agreement as to what it means and represents – between the business and people, but also between people themselves. If there is no agreement then there is no brand.

Jeff Bezos is widely quoted as saying, “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room,” (I don’t think he actually ever said this, but let’s not ruin a good story). Now, there is some truth in this statement. Word of mouth has always had a part to play in shaping a brand, ever more so now in the connected and social online world. However, what this statement omits (or at the very least minimizes) is the role of the business in defining the brand. The business is still the primary actor in defining what the brand is and means. It doesn’t matter how much we talk about ‘brand communities’ and the like, the fact is that the business is far and away the most involved, most vocal and most interested actor in what their brand means, and so what the business says about their brand remains the most influential.

However, there is a big caveat to that. It doesn’t matter how many times you say that your business means a certain thing, if people don’t believe you then that’s not what your brand means. You could spend millions and millions communicating a meaning of your brand, but if no-one’s experience matches up to what you’re saying then you’re wasting every penny.

I could tell everyone that I’m the greatest football player the world has ever seen. I could spend millions pushing this message everywhere, constantly. But if I never did anything to show that I’m the greatest football player in the world, I will very much remain not the greatest football player in the world.

This point is, the business can define what the brand means, but it only really means that once people agree. The brand only exists once there is shared meaning.

So, let’s get back to how we started this – you are the owner of a business. You need people to want to buy your product (not products from you), and so you need to shape a brand. You do this through encouraging ‘shared meaning’, but how can you do that?

There has been a well-reported move over recent years in marketing towards greater spend on direct-response or personal targeted communications. Budgets and focus are increasingly weighted towards ‘personalisation’ – hyper-targeted, narrowly focused, individual communications. Often online, but let’s not label all online communication as personalised as we know full well it isn’t. Now, I’m not saying there isn’t a place for this type of communication, of course there is. However, if you overly focus or spend on hyper-personalised communication, to the detriment of mass marketing, you are never going to grow a brand of any worth. Not to the business nor to people.

I’ll say this again, just in case I haven’t been clear enough previously – the value of a brand is in its shared meaning.

The only way to create shared meaning is mass marketing – defining and communicating a central value proposition for the brand that is delivered over and over again. Delivered in attention-grabbing, memorable, and creative ways. Delivered in ways that people sit up and notice, and that they might even share on with their friends or networks. Delivered in ways that might be different each time – from channels to content type to messaging. But delivered to the point where everyone you’re aiming at (when I say mass-marketing this doesn’t mean you couldn’t aim at specific audience segments) comes to a general agreement on what your brand means.

People need to generally agree on what you are famous for.

One final thing. Note, throughout this I have always referred to having a brand, and not being a brand. The business is not the brand. They are inextricably linked, but they are not one and the same thing. For me, the brand is what is continually co-created through the interactions of business and people (and of ideas and things, but more on that another time) and the ‘shared meaning’ that is shaped from those ongoing interactions and the context within which they happen. (This is my opinion on brand, others will disagree and that’s grand).

So, back to the beginning again. You’ve got a business. You want a brand. Get famous for a shared meaning.

Your brand isn’t what you say it is – it’s what people will agree it is.

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