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The first text in the IPA Diploma is Stephen King's "What is a Brand?"

It offers a salutary warning to anyone trying to think about the question that is the agenda for APG's first Noisy Thinking event of the year - 'What is a Brand nowadays?'

"Usually when we discuss such difficult and controversial topics we rush in and start to argue about techniques. So often we try and solve problems without working out the theory of the thing first"

Most usefully tonight, written as it was nearly 50 years ago in 1971, Stephen's seminal piece offers a good comparison point with the 20 IPA Diploma essays featured in "What is a 21st Century Brand?", which was published last year to celebrate ten years of the qualification.

Stephen starts, very very sensibly, in the business context in which brands have to add value.

That context, remember it's 1971, was essentially the rise and rise of retailer power and own label. Stephen is of course thinking mainly of brands as FMCG brands.

He argues that the role of brand is to 'disintermediate' that retailer power; to create consumer preference ahead of the retail moment of truth.

He suggests that this can be best done by us by building the intangible values of the brand, as all other parts of the mix can be imitated. This is not to say he argues for lack of investment in product, just that creating great product and great brand are both pictured as symbiotic necessities for market success

He therefore defines a brand, simply and succinctly, as 'a personality' -

" addition to its values as a product, the brand has values beyond the physical and functional ones. And those values contribute to a brand personality. People choose their brands as they choose their friends. You choose friends... Not usually because of specific skills, or physical attributes (though of course these come into it) but simply because you like them as people. It is the total person you choose not a compendium of virtues and vices”

Having made a clear statement of what is a brand, he goes on to define the kind of brand ideas required.

Rather than define a type of idea he smartly offers eg's rather than abstracts. And his eg's are those of the great brand-building JWT of the 70's. Andrex Puppy, Persil mum, Mr Kipling. All ideas absolutely rooted in building a personality first and foremost. In the case of Mr Kipling literally creating it from scratch.

In "What is a 21st Century Brand?" The Diploma students are thinking about different varied types of brands beyond FMCG.

So they offer multiple perspectives and no one answer for 'where are brands going nowadays?' And probably that is right. There should be no one answer, only 'bricolage' ready to be assembled depending on context.

After all it is a truism that the business context of the 21st Century is multi-dimensional and complex.

But I will not kop out.

Looking across the pieces there are broad observations worthy of considering.

In the Diploma pieces, the overriding context in which brands are required to add value is pictured as the rise and rise of consumer power. A rise rooted obviously on the back of the Internet and a digital world. But also in growing consumer confidence and savvy

The role of the brand however is not to disintermediate. One cannot disintermediate one's own power base. The overwhelming exploration therefore is of how a brand has to stand on the side of that consumer power: accept, amplify and augment that power rather than nullify it.

The authors suggest brands are things we choose not 'as we choose our friends' but rather 'choose with our friends'. They are shared objects and ideas. They are in short communities of interest.

The role of ideas in that world is to catalyse the value and values in that community.

To activate the knowledge and data in the network (think Fiat Cinquocento data collection on how you drive)

Or to invite the community to get together (think Red Bull go-karting)

Or to champion the social concerns of that community (think Toms shoes)

Or simply lean in and like and share points of view (think Always #Like a girl)

In short, if my favourite ad of the 20th Century was Coke's 'I'd like to teach the world to sing' which is the purest of emotional plays. My favourite of the 21st Century becomes Obama's 'Yes We Can’ -the purest of ideas as catalyst.

So in conclusion, what does that compare and contrast exercise tell us about 'what is a brand nowadays'?

Our old definitions of brand from maker's mark to trustmark, to brand as shortcut, to status badge, to emotion, to brand as experience etc etc are not suddenly wrong.

They all live on and can all still contribute, alongside the newest thinking.

The truth is the world is generally not 'either/or' nor is what is a brand.

Maybe our search is for 'trusted communities with personality'.

So let's get the real question - 'what should we do therefore?'

Time for another noisy debate.


Nick Kendall is a planner extraordinaire and former Group Strategy Director at BBH, now Co-Founder at BRO-KEN and the editor of an excellent new book: 'What is a C21st Brand?'

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