brand narratives

Three great brand tools come together.

3 great ideasImportant disciplines combine in a powerful branding approach.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of timing that familiar techniques and technologies can be sparked by a catalyst arriving at the right moment. Not only does the time have to be technically right, but the intellectual and cultural environment needs to be open to the opportunities.

The three branding disciplines I’m thinking about are semiotics, grounded theory and big data.


Semiotics provides us with an approach based upon cultural and societal meanings and the signs and signifiers that point to them. Currently there is a movement to understand emotional significance rather than declarative knowledge about brands and how deeper meanings are embedded in the brand narrative.

A semiotic approach to branding and brand development needs an analytic understanding of the cultural environment that a brand and its consumers inhabit. We need to discern the history, myths, metaphors and symbols that shape the consumers’ world and behaviour.

The major challenge has been the difficulty in finding our way into the data. As much of the meaning is unconscious, traditional research using primary survey techniques is not effective. Asking for views and opinions is of little value as people won’t or can’t answer truthfully – this is not because they want to mislead, but they honestly can’t access those deeper meaning.

Grounded Theory

This is where grounded theory comes in. Grounded theory is a very different qualitative approach. Rather than beginning with a series of questions we are looking for answers to, we approach the data without a theory. It is an ethnographic approach collating all the data we can from the environment. This may include published information, commentary from the media surrounding the subject, observation of the environment and practices, visual images, perhaps video, film and advertising, historical data, songs – in fact the whole cultural tapestry.

What the practitioner is looking for are patterns – recurrences of structures across a wide range of data. There is no pre-conceived theory but we are looking for codes and meanings that are emergent from the data.

As you can imagine, sourcing and amassing the masses of data necessary and then applying meaningful analysis can be a daunting and very labour-intensive task. This was the case in the past, but now we have the final piece in the jigsaw – big data.

Big Data

It is now possible to access amazing volumes of data from a mass of sources – textual, visual and auditory. Equally importantly there are now the analytical tools to process and understand the data – to look for those illusive and emergent codes and recurrences. One of the significant advantages of ‘big-data’ is its cultural richness.

Bringing together these three threads provides us with an approach to branding which allows us access to deep emotional understanding. We can get to grips with the deep meanings that drive the human essence of markets.


Brands must have walls, windows and doors

Walls, Windows andLet’s think of a brand as a fine building with walls, windows and doors.  These are the essential and useful features of any building. Properly constructed and used a building is sound, welcoming and vibrant, but care must be taken in the use of those same features to ensure that it doesn’t become a fortress, or worse, a prison.


A brand’s walls define what it is, its scope and boundaries. Walls people understand a brand in terms of what it does and what it doesn’t do. This clarity is as important for those working on the brand  as it is for the public outside. As well as separating the brand, walls also connect – they are the touch points where the public contact the brand.

The danger is that walls can become fortifications. The brand can feel too safe and secure behind them and avoid contact with the challenging world outside. The walls can grow too high and the brand can no longer see out and understand what is happening outside.


Fortunately brands also have windows. Through the windows the public can see into the brand and understand it. These are the communications conduits – advertising, press and public relations, digital and social media windows. It’s through these windows that the brand can speak, shout, wave and smile.

Windows work both ways – not only should the world be able to look in on the brand, but the brand can observe, understand and take note of the world it inhabits. These are the windows of customer service, and research – where the brand watches and listens.

Brands can choose how big to make their windows and how many. Plenty of big windows shed a lot of light into the brand and not all brand stewards like this. When problems occur its all to easy to start drawing the curtains.

But windows are useful for communication – you can see, show and demonstrate, but there is always that pane of glass between the brand and the public. To genuinely engage we need doors.


Doors are where people actively connect with the brand. They are the points where the public purchases products and services, where the become emotionally involved. These are the gateways where the brand comes forth and meets its people – but more importantly, where it allows the world in – not just to observe but to connect. Doorways are where we place our welcome mats.

All three elements are equally important for a sound and effective brand:

Walls define the purpose, borders and remit of the brand, showing both public and staff where the brand stands.

Windows are vital for communications – transparency is the key.

Doors are where the public and the brand meet – not where people are locked out.

Favourite Brands – Virgin

There are lots of reviews of top brands… rankings, awards and well-researched analysis. If you want some more scientific insight, where better to look than Superbrands.

However, I like to occasionally indulge myself in looking at my own favourite brands – in a non-scientific and wholly subjective manner. My justification for this is my belief in the power of the emotional dimension of branding. This is not as open to scientific analysis though its manifestations may be quantified.

virgin logoMy choice for this piece is Virgin. I begin my working life when Virgin was still a baby brand and watched it grow up. For me it is an ideal example of consistent, emotional brand values.

It is hard to put your finger on the spirit which runs throughout the brand and engages with the public. It has much of the zeitgeist of the 70’s – slightly hippy and irreverent, perhaps it strikes a chord with those who have grown up with the brand. It is difficult to believe the same emotional theme could run throughout a business story that began with record stores and diversified and transformed through air travel, railways, new media and telecoms, financial services and now… space travel?

A key dimension has almost certainly been people. It’s glib to use terms like ‘brand ambassadors’ and I’m not sure that it is useful. It suggests that staff have another, special role. In truth the people are just doing their jobs, but the way they go about them embodies the brand spirit.

Another factor is probably the structure. A lot of what Virgin does runs contrary to accepted business wisdom. When Richard Branson took the business back into private ownership it ensured it had the flexibility to do things its own way. As regular plc, with a board with shareholders to answer to, it’s possible that business would never have moved into such seemingly unconnected arenas. Had it stuck to the record business it might have gone the way of HMV.

That’s why I’m nominating Virgin as one of my top brands – it has done things it’s own way – and understands that the value of the brand transcends the standard business models. It has maintained the emotional core, consistently over half a century, still with the cockyness of a bright teenager.

Charities forget brand values in fundraising at their peril.

Charity - Andrew Carnegie.Most decisions we make about brands have deep emotional connections. In many cases they are signifiers for our own sense of identity. Our choices in clothes, food and drink, cars and transport touch us at subconscious levels to accord with our sense of self. They feel right for us as they relate to our personal values and experience.

The more directly emotional the category of the brand, the stronger the connection. There can be few more emotional connections than those we have with charities we choose to support. Our choices are based on direct tugs to our individual heart-strings. We respond to deep beliefs and reflect strongly held values.

In general, the charities’ core activities are strongly in line with their brand values. They are very visible manifestations and probably demonstrate the reasons why we chose to support them in the first place. Where there are concerns lie in their down-stream activities, particularly fundraising. This is where we are most likely to interact directly with the brand and where a mismatch of values can become apparent.

Bob Geldof’s, “Give us your ****** money”, was right on the brand message for Liveaid. It resonated with the values of the supporters. Clearly, there are many charities for which such an approach would be inappropriate.

There has been a good deal of critical press about such activities as ‘chugging’ or ‘charity mugging’ where hit squads target city centres. There are arguments for and against, and for big charities it can be argued that the end justifies the means. However, often aggressive fundraising can seem out of synch withe the values of serious charities. Fundraisers must take a hard look at the characters and values of the loyal supporters and match their efforts to the shared brand values.

Brand values must be consistent above all. Sometimes it seems as though there is a disconnect between a charity’s core brand, its purpose and actions in the field and the activities of the fundraising arm.

How to make them love your brand – the emotional dimension of branding.

heartIt’s generally accepted that we engage with brands and make choices on two levels: the pragmatic or declarative level and the emotional level. But the importance of the emotional level is often underestimated.

Our primary processing of any experience (including a brand experience) is at a visceral level, often described as pre-wired and subconscious; next we process at a behavioural level – how it functions and our own interaction. Thirdly, we consider it at a reflective level – how it makes us feel and in terms of our broader life experiences. (After Don Norman)

These early stages of experience fall into the category of passive involvement processing (PIP). We don’t consciously process, we feel.

Later stages of brand choice use active involvement processing (AIP), where we consider and weigh alternatives and make what we believe are rational, objective decisions. The truth is that we have probably made our emotional choices already using PIP and are now only justifying those decisions.

Much of the work done with brands is done at the rational level because this is most amenable to communications and persuasion. Facts and information can be communicated with the object of influencing rational choice using the subject’s pragmatic AIP. However, by this stage decisions, prejudices and choices are likely to be already deeply embedded.

So, how do we appeal at that passive emotional level?

It is not easy, but understanding those primitive emotions may help point the way. Early man liked people like himself. There is a functional advantage to this, your own family group and tribe represent safety in a potentially violent world. Approaching strangers could be a risky activity – so he would seek out those he knew, those who looked like him, sounded like him and smelled like him. He wanted to feel comfortable with those who shared his values.

Our brand choice is similarly driven – we choose brands with which we feel comfortable, which match our values and our lifestyle. The key word for the brand steward is ‘empathy’. It is important to be in touch with the emotional forces at work in the audience. No at a shallow level that can be talked to, but at deep level that can be felt.

It needs a real understanding of the person the brand wants to share with – understanding their values, desires and fears. The brand steward must seek to build an holistic picture of the subject and also of the brand. The objective is to analyse the touch points, where must the brand values be perfectly in tune with those of the audience – empathy.


1. Get to really understand your audiences emotional needs. Marketers are good at understanding and satisfying physical needs, but for your brand to touch people you need to  recognise their deeper emotions, desires, aspirations, needs and fears. Use archetypes, create lifestyle boards – anything to help your insight.

2. Analyse your brand values. Be honest. It’s easy to pay lip-service to all the values we believe we should have – but what are the core values that we hold true? Better still, ask others – clients, suppliers, friends – a quick survey will be priceless.

3. Match up the touch points – this is where you can build.

4. Don’t force it. Sometimes there are circles you just cannot square. For example, perhaps customers are small independent retailers who are uncomfortable with and scared of big suppliers. If you are a large organization, don’t try to fake it. Either look for other emotional convergence that you can build on or admit that perhaps you are trying to connect with the wrong audience. Or maybe you need to restructure. The point about emotion is it’s deep and visceral – and above all, must be honest.

The seven pillars of export branding

sevenpillarsAt its core, all branding is the same – however, when a brand moves into the international arena, there are some critical dimensions that must be considered.

1. Language

This may seem obvious, but does your brand name translate into your target languages? Even proper names may have an unintended meaning. Don’t just think of the spelling – when pronounced, even seemingly harmless words may have unintended meanings.

Do you use descriptive words in your brand such as, ‘Norfolk Car Parts’ or ‘Budget Printing’? Will these words be meaningful in your selected markets.

You may not need to change a brand name, but it may help to emphasise just part of your title.

Also consider any statements or strap-lines that form part of your corporate signature; these may need adapting in translation.

2. Culture

While language may be easy to check, culture is rather more subtle, and potentially a bigger trap. There is no quick fix. You need to do your research and immerse yourself as far as possible in the culture of your market.  Look at the media, both online and offline; look at your competitors.

Best of all, expose your brand to nationals of your target markets. Discuss your ambitions. Use your partners in-market; agents, distributors etc. Talk to embassy staff.

You’ll soon appreciate how culture impacts upon many of the other dimensions of your branding activity.

3. Brand Story

Is your brand narrative relevant to your target market? Things that may seem unimportant at home may be leveraged to advantage internationally. While your location may have little relevance to home customers, it may be a strong plus abroad. Consider the cultural context: for example, history of a family business may be very important in certain markets.

4. Competitive positioning

The perception of your brand position relative to your competitors from market to market. Be aware and be sensitive, you can often use this to your advantage. Don’t assume that your positioning will be the same as it is at home.

5. Core Values

Your core values are what makes your brand what it is. They should be strong and consistent wherever you do business. You must be clear about them and communicate them to all you work with – your staff, your partners in market, your customers and supply chain. Don’t tinker with them, but just be aware that certain values may be more important in some markets more than others.

6. IPR

Intellectual property rights – consider them all; brand names, trademarks, patents, designs, copyright etc.

Legal protection may be difficult or costly across export markets, but you must give them consideration. It is important to give your brand all the protection you can apply or afford. It is equally important to make sure you don’t infringe the IPR of others.

Remember, a strong brand can often be the best protection you can get – be first to market, establish a strong presence and leave potential copyists playing catch-up.

7. Visual communications.

Though language is important, visual and non-verbal communications have an equally powerful part to play. When you see the ‘golden arches’ of Macdonalds, or the Apple symbol, you don’t need the name. Strong visual symbolism can be a means of transcending language difficulties.

Consider the elements of your corporate identity, symbols, colours, typography. Maintain rigid visual standards.

It’s important to look at the cultural context of your visual elements. What semantic connotations do your colours have? In many cultures colours are far more important, and signify different states.

Virgin rail behaving true to brand values.

We have all noted the recent farce with the government back-pedalling rapidly over the franchise process – probably with a mixture of incredulity and eye-rolling.

Aside from the political issues and outcomes, I was quite heartened with how the Virgin brand comes out of this. Whether you consider it creditable or not, the brand acted true to its values. Much of the personification of those values is embodied in Mr Branson, and the way he goes about his business. But in this instance he and the brand acted in a way we would have expected.

I’m not getting into an argument over whether it was right or wrong – just that the brand behaved authentically.

If we look at the long brand narrative, from selling imported vinyl, to taking on the high street, launching airlines and digging in its toes against BA, it has always behaved in character.

I suggest this little chapter will not reflect badly on the company. One thing the public likes from its brands is consistency, and Virgin certainly seems to demonstrate that trait.

Legal victories may be bad for brands

JusticeWhen your brand wins a legal battle it may be good for the company but can damage brand values and engagement.

Apple have been smugly congratulating themselves after their court victory over Samsung. We can all understand – when your success is built around product innovation, protecting your intellectual property must be at the front of your corporate mind. But perversely, the public may not share in the jubilation.

Legal confrontations are not particularly edifying. Especially if you are a powerful, brand leader, there is always a reaction to feel sympathy for the underdog. I’m sure many of us remember the reputation Microsoft earned by their eagerness to rush to litigation.

Nobody likes to see dirty washing done in public. Facebook’s internal conflicts did little to endear the management to its public. All of these actions reflect upon the brand values and can be internally damaging.

The discourse within organizations that are involved in litigious processes is indicative of lawyers’ confrontational culture. The metaphors are about battles, about fighting, winning, victories and defeats. The dialogues are adopted throughout the organization. Staff understand who the ‘enemy’ is. The brand ambassadors begin to use the discourse of street-fighters. The ‘battles’ become part of the brand narrative and define its values.

Of course we must protect our IPR and be prepared to stand up for our brand. But it is also important from a brand leadership standpoint that we don’t allow the corrosive and hostile attitude to damage our values.

If you want to understand emotional attachment with brand identity, look at the regiment.

For most of us, the emotional power of a brand identity is crucial – for the armed forces it is a matter of life and death.

I was watching the Trooping of the Colour recently, and was struck by how army regiments display the ultimate object lesson in brand identity. At its most basic level, a brand or corporate identity unites people of a common purpose and a common set of values. The simplest manifestation of this are the colours, the flag or standard. Recognition on the battlefield was vital to even the earliest warlords, so they displayed their distinctive colours to their tribe or army.

Going a step further, it made a lot of sense to be able to recognise your comrades: consistent identity across uniforms was a sensible consideration. Soon all the trappings of identity symbols, badges, colours, tunes – found their way into military life.

Telling the story.

Identity is about far more than recognition, however, as any brand manager will tell you. It is about communications and values. Every regiment develops its own set of values. These are of necessity militaristic – courage, efficiency, fierceness, mutual support, etc. – values that are critical to the performance of the regiment. They also bolster the sense of common purpose, pride and loyalty. It is about emotional attachment.

As with all brands, external communication is also key. Items of uniform, music and colours were often as much about demonstrating to the enemy that you were bigger, stronger, smarter or more fierce than they were. More, it is not just the enemy, but a regiment wants to express its values to its competitors – other regiments. Again, we are building and eliciting an emotional response.

Take a look around any regimental mess – you will see colours with battle honours, regimental silver and trophies. Walls carry pictures of past events, letters from important personages and paintings of previous colonels and heroes. Medals sit in glass cases and obsolete weapons hang in memory of times past. There are rituals and procedures unique to the members. What the sum of these items represent is a story, and on-going narrative.

What can we learn to enhance our brand in civvy street?

  • Make sure your own people are on board – communicate with them, give them a sense of purpose and belonging. They are your brand ambassadors.
  • Get your values right  – the trappings of identity are only as good as the values they stand for.
  • Don’t undervalue your story – the brand narrative continues, for you, your people and those you wish to influence.

The narrative of new media brands is the story of revolution.

Red Flag of revolutionIt is glib to talk about ‘The New Media Revolution’, or ‘The Digital Revolution’, or, more recently the ‘The Social Network Revolution’ – but if we look closely at the brand stories, they seem to follow the narrative of a revolution. From the start-ups in silicon valley, through the dotcom boom and into Twitter and Facebook, the analogy of the progress of a brand revolution parallels the storylines of such events as those of 18th century France and the United States, or 20th century Russia.

Consider the chapters:

  • Chapter One – the visionary sees a need for change. He or she progresses their ideas, perhaps working in close co-operation was a very small group of like-minded associates.
  • Chapter Two – the manifesto is published and immediately meets opposition from the establishment. Status quo is threatened and the revolutionary ideas are dismissed, ridiculed or oppressed.
  • Chapter Three – the revolution gains momentum. First zealots flock to the banner, then the more cautious population. The establishment can no longer ignore the revolution. Battle lines are drawn: people must choose between support or conflict or be swept aside.
  • Chapter Four – revolution is successful. It is swept to power and its commune achieves heroic status. The original visionaries are almost deified. The people are happy and reap the befits of the new order.
  • Chapter Five – the revolution becomes the establishment. Revolutionary leadership begins to be observed as self-serving. There is dissent about direction and leadership faction emerge.
  • Chapter Six – disillusion sets in. Followers become disappointed; perceptions of corruption begin to be whispered. Factions break away as agendas conflict. The population becomes discontented and leadership increasingly distant.
  • Chapter Seven –  centrifugal forces pull the revolution apart. There may be destructive factionalization or the fermentation of counter-revolution. The leadership is seen to have feet of clay. The population cries out for change and the regime has lost support. Conditions are right for a new visionary, a new messiah… or the return to the old reactionary ways.

Perhaps this is a bleak view of revolution, but I think the narrative metaphor can be applied to many of the brand histories that we have seen since the dawn of the digital age. I hope that a view of the potential dangers can help the visionaries avoid some of the pitfalls that the story of revolution holds.

There have been positive revolutions, successful over time and  every revolutionary brand should seek to emulate these and not let their brand narrative become that of ‘Animal Farm‘.