The Ambiguous Brand

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Branding is no longer a zero-sum game.

Back in my music journalism days, I had the chance to interview Gene Simmons from KISS on several occasions. It was always an "experience," and he always spouted off quotable little sound bytes about rock n’ roll, the lifestyle and the people who like and connect with KISS. In short, Simmons frowned on apathy. He would often say that people either hate KISS with all of their heart, or that they love the band with all of their heart. In short, we were either a member of the KISS Army or a cadaver on the battlefield, as far as he was concerned. It was an important life lesson for this young and impressionable entrepreneur. You know the saying, "you can’t please everyone…" 

Brands try to please everyone.

This is not a political rant, but brands serve the community with platitudes and apologies more than anyone else. Sure, there are a few indie and fringe brands that don’t cater the masses, and yes there are brands that know who their ideal consumer is (and they’re not trying to placate to the rest of the population), but – in general terms – brands like to have one, clean uniformed message.

Is the brand – as we have known it – all but gone in this day and age?

Lance Armstrong came clean tonight on Oprah‘s TV network, OWN (sort of… it’s hard to tell when a self-admitted liar is suddenly not lying). Did he do it? Didn’t he do it? I’m less interested in what Armstrong had to say and that much more interested in the time and sentiment around public forgiveness. At what point, do we all move on and get back to the Lance Armstrong who was both a hero and champion of finding a cure for Cancer through his Livestrong foundation? Is that kind of comeback even possible? Will an apology (or admission) do the trick? Regardless, people have already either passed judgment or are over-looking his indiscretions because of the awareness and change he has brought to ending this deadly disease. There is a big question here: did Armstrong’s brand take a hit from which it can never recover from or have we changed – as a society – and we will accept the humanness of his choices and accept him for the flawed individual that he is… that we all are?

This is not about Lance Armstrong.

This blog post is not about Lance Armstrong or any other celebrity who has fallen from grace. It’s not about an airline that broke someone’s guitar, and it’s not about a computer company that didn’t care about the service one of its customers was getting. This is a blog post about brands becoming more human – because of our connected society – and how we have all changed and become somewhat ambiguous about the brands that serve us. In doing so, brands have become ambiguous as well. Brands (like humans) are flawed, they make mistakes, they apologize… and we all move on. That’s a change in the temperament of branding. We don’t have one, long enduring feeling anymore. Brands have their ups and downs and we go along for the ride.

The Superman barrelchest.

Brands used to be bigger than life. They were managed by us mere mortals. Now, brands have taken on a much more dynamic range of emotions. Brands used to be perfect, because they controlled the message to be perfect. Now, we’re more accepting and tolerant of brands – warts and all. And, in thinking about brands becoming ambiguous brands, it leads me to wonder if this dismisses their ability to command the same level of power that they used to command? Why is this important? Another powerful emotion of humanity is forgiveness. So, brands have become mortal. They will be forgiven, so from one context to another we have these brands that morph, shift and don’t have that same foundation of steadfast dominance.

Something to ponder for the brands that still believe in the command and control model.


  1. I think it’s not just brands that are suffering with the switch to humanization, but customers are struggling with it as well. As brands become more and more humanized, they are going to make mistakes. We all do. One of the things that they (everyone) need to learn is that timing can make a huge difference. Currently, what many brands do is wait until their parents tell them they need to apologize and then they go apologize…but as brands mature into rebellious teenagers, I’m sure we’ll see more genuine apologies.

  2. Brands have always made mistakes. Some managed them better than others. Think Tylenol or New Coke. Both recovered famously. Pepsi is now ranked third behind Coke and Diet Coke. Brands are still managed by mere mortals. And brands have always been mortal. And we, mere mortals always controlled brands. We either bought them or we didn’t. Brands will survive if they continue to a differentiated, relevant promise of value and keep that promise. If they make a promise and keep it, they’ll get rich. If they make a promise and break it they’ll go broke.

  3. I see the terms “brand” and “branding” loosely used in business writings. Are there universally agreed definitions on what these words mean? In the scheme Kellogg/BreakfastDivision/KelloggsLogo+FrostedFlakes/TonytheTiger/”They’reGreat”/Jingle/CornFlakes+Sugar, where does the creator/source end and the the brand begin?(see Hostess Brands, Inc. is defunct, but people still discuss Twinkies and Cup Cakes. Mitch, if an entrepreneur asked you to define a permanent brand and the “pieces” that comprise it, what answer would you give them?

  4. I think we treat brands less humanly now. The internet has given the world a platform to tear the brand limb from limb. Whether they’re Motrin Moms or Yelpers.

  5. Mitch, thoughtful post. But I’m not sure brands are any more or less human than they have historically been. In fact I think the command and control model is all too human. Think about it in terms of political and economic history. Dictatorships have always employed rhetoric and propaganda to portray themselves as ‘perfect’. Religions have cloaked themselves in the language of love and peace while they persecute those who don’t believe what they preach. History is littered with ‘brands’ like this. The history of commerce is no different.

  6. I’m wondering if brands — at least the big, dynamic, compelling brands — could be likened to a modern-day equivalent of the Greek gods + goddesses. Those figures were archetypes, each of whom stood for a very definite set of ideas, and served as larger-than-life reflections of us. So that ambiguity, that expectation that they would make mistakes and f*ck up and prove themselves deeply flawed, was kind of baked in; if anything, perfect behavior would have bored the audience. We need stories of the fall, if only to set up future stories of redemption.
    Brands are forced to be multidimensional now — they can’t get away from it — which means that they’re also more vulnerable. But if anything it’s vulnerability that people respond to and connect with…So long as brands feel authentic (whatever that is) + connect us to a sense of something bigger, I don’t think we’ll expect or even want steadfast dominance from them, which as a concept seems more and more a relic from an earlier age. We want *interestingness*, and if they can give us that they’re golden, and we’ll keep space in the conversation for them.

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