Branding is Bullshit


Brand is a misused and misunderstood concept. Branding is bullshit.

In consumer terms, a brand is a noun; but it’s an intangible entity, more an idea than a thing. The brand is a perception, the consumer’s image of a company (or other entity/product) that comes from experience. A brand is also a reputation, developed over time. It’s earned. A manufacturer may control the quality of its product. The company is responsible for the visual design of its corporate identity and the physical design of its products. The company influences consumers’ experience through its customer service. But the brand is the result of the collective experience of these things (and others). The established brand is truly the domain of the consumer.
To Brand. As a verb, branding has referred to the act of creating and applying a distinctive mark. It’s how cattle ranchers have shown proof of ownership. Their brand is a scar on flesh. In 21st century business jargon, branding is considered the management and control of the perception of an entity.
In the last 20 years there have witnessed the emergence of an industry that claims to understand how to create and maintain a brand. These self-proclaimed branding experts have created a business consulting category—borne of the assumption that this buzzword branding is actually a definable practice. These agencies have fostered their own celebrity by creating their own brands and promoting their supposed expertise. The only brands they can honestly claim to create are their own. They brand themselves as experts, they manipulate others into believing them, into valuing their opinion enough to pay for it.
They claim to create brands. Bullshit. Brands exist independent of any branding. The actual brand is beyond the control of any self-appointed branding expert. See also BP, Enron, Lehman Brothers…
I contend that the business of branding is a business of deception. Branding agencies have co-opted graphic design and the disciplines of advertising, marketing, and public relations. They claim the same expertise as professionals who are skilled in these business practices—practices that existed long before the groupthink that gave birth to brand consultancies. Branding agencies have subjugated these disciplines to a supporting role; according to them, these work in service of branding. This is utter nonsense.
I have decades of experience as a designer who works with clients to create brand identity. I wish to reveal these branding charlatans as duplicitous thieves. This construct they call branding has subsumed corporate (brand) identity as a component of its realm. According to them, graphic design works in service of a larger brand maintenance initiative.
Effective graphic design works to assist client companies in communicating and representing their interests. Things like strategy, research, and competitive analysis have always been part of professional graphic design. They are also components of successful advertising, marketing, and public relations. All that branding has added to these practices is posturing, layers of management, buzzwords, charts and graphs, and more bullshit.
In the mid to late 20th century it was leading designers who created the most powerful visual identities for corporations. Designers like Raymond Loewy, Paul Rand, Saul Bass, and Tom Geismar created lasting images for successful enterprise. These geniuses could distill a company’s identity in beautiful, potent, memorable marks and apply them effectively as part of a comprehensive corporate identity. Identity design is still best left to individual skilled designers. Original thinking is not the stock and trade of multi-tiered consultancies. They rely on systems and formulae that will always produce more of the same.
I am a graphic designer who designs logos. I do not claim to brand. I create visual identity. Hopefully the identity effectively represents the thing (product, venture, etc.) it was created for. The images I create may contribute to the public’s reaction to the organization, but ultimately, my work is the creation of a visual mnemonic for a brand.
Defining and manipulating a brand will not result in business success. Branding cannot turn a failed business plan into a successful business. Branding is a hollow and, ultimately, futile endeavor. In spite of how you look or behave, public opinion will shape your brand. To foster any successful brand, it would be wiser to focus on quality products, a positive work environment, and exemplary service before, during and after the sale. Your brand will be shaped by that.


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  • As a partner of a brand strategy and design firm, it may come as a surprise that I tend to agree with your position here. The practice of branding, as many in the industry have come to define it, is more closely aligned to shoveling manure than providing substance with business value. You offer one of the most important and, I think, relevant perspectives on a practice which has become congested with “experts” selling what they have no control over. The fact is, designers, agencies and brand consultancies have little control over the brands they serve. There, I said it. All we can really control is the quality of the guidance and direction that we provide our clients. We can help them arrive at a more clear, meaningful understanding of who they are as organizations, and why that matters to their stakeholders. We can help shape the platform and the tools by which they communicate their promise to these stakeholders. We can make strategic recommendations of where and how their brands are experienced. But what we can’t do is control the rational, emotional or perceptual relationships that one has with a brand. The audience defines a brand through their individual experiences. Period. While we can help guide that experience so it’s aligned with a vision for the brand and fulfilling to those who connect with it, we can’t control it. As Marty Neumeier, author of The Brand Gap, notes, “your brand is not what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.”

    I’ve always had contempt for the term “branding” or the word “brand” used as a verb. Regardless of whether you’re a designer, PR consultant, brand strategist, or advertising professional, you don’t “do” branding. The brand is formed by the individual experience one has with a company, it’s products and services. It’s a claim of distinction — a promise — and how that promise is delivered. With this distinction in mind, your position that the business of branding is deceptive is accurate. It’s deceptive for a design firm to reposition itself as a “branding” firm, but continuing to functioning as it always had. It’s deceptive to take claim to the creation of a brand because you developed their logo and a website. Call it what it is. You developed a logo and a website. You didn’t develop a brand. You developed tools that represent and communicate the brand. If you built a brand strategy to help a client deliver valued, consistent brand experiences, you built a strategy. You didn’t build a brand. That’s a huge distinction that needs to be clearly articulated.

    The business of helping clients shape their brand strategy in order to deliver more valued and meaningful experiences is what brand “professionals” should aspire to provide. That is not a hollow nor futile endeavor. This, I believe, is critical to business success because it gives the company a code to live and operate by and a vision to aspire to. Quality products, a positive work environment and exemplary customer service are all derivatives of that code and vision.

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  • bearcatski

    There’s plenty of BS out there, and I agree that few firms have the breadth of services that allow them to influence the brand on enough levels to instantly change it…but there’s nothing wrong with shooting for the stars. That is the point of design is it not? Influence positive, profitable change in an aesthetically pleasing way.

    Some designers and firms might want to do their logo/digital/print work etc. and move on…That’s cool and there is plenty of companies (likely smaller ones) that will hire them for their great creative.

    Good “branding” firms have a very holistic view of brand and the levers that influence it. Multi-billion dollar companies are not going to bet their futures and their shareholders money on a few creative people’s genius any more. Those days are over. Bigger corporations that want bigger thinking that can be verified with lots of research…this is where the Branding firms play.

    Is it over complicated sometimes…Yes.
    But there’s room for all of us

  • XK9

    Hello Mark and Tom.

    Thank you to contributing your thoughts and continuing the dialog.

    Tom, I won’t out you but I will share with whomever reads this that you work for one of the more well-known firms that practice branding. I truly appreciate your perspective. I’m not saying that quality work does not come from companies like yours; it certainly can and often does.

    I take issue with how companies like yours define what they do. I believe thay might be more accurately referred to as Enterprise Marketing Consultants. Probably not as sexy as Branding Experts, but it is honest.

    Someone claimed that mine is a problem of semantics; I suppose that’s true. The meaning of words is critical and I take issue with the meaning of the word branding. As used by companies like yours, it’s the business equivalent of alchemy, the mythical practice of turning lead into gold.

    No doubt, a business can be influenced by the work you do. But to call it branding is more than “reaching for the stars.” It’s claiming that you have stars for sale.

    Bill Dawson

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  • I also agree with you. I was a little confused about your comment on my Facebook page until I looked into what you were referencing.
    While I agree that brands exist, period, and we don’t create them in a sense of creating the perception the public has of the product, business, or organization. There is a time when the product, business, or organization doesn’t exist. Often my clients don’t do the work of thinking about who they are as a business or why anyone should even care that their business exists. I use the term branding to help have these conversations. I always make sure that my clients know that we can’t create a brand, but we can build the foundation on which the brand exists. I just started my business a little over a year ago and am trying to figure out how I need to frame this conversations with potential clients so I get some work and put food on the table. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. They are helpful. I’m working on writing a post myself discussing the misuse of the terms “branding” and “marketing”. Serious pet peeves of mine. I’ll be sure to reference this post as additional reading.

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  • Derek

    I have to say… I disagree strongly with just about every word in that post.

    Your fundamental problem seems to be that you thinks a ‘brand’ is a ‘logo’. A brand is no more a logo than it is an advertising campaign or a newsletter design. A logo is one small element of a brand. A brand is how a company is perceived by the populous and encapsulates far more than just one image.

    Take social media for instance. By engaging with your customers online, by providing them with useful content, tips, engagement, etc. you directly affect the corporate brand. Your logo is the same, our color scheme is the same, but now through your actions (designed with such goals in mind) your brand is now perceived to be a more open, more interactive, a company who is looking out for the interests of their customers.

    I would argue that a brand is even bigger than that… a brand is the philosophy that the company lives by… it’s a company’s core identity both externally and internally. Apple’s brand isn’t a gray 2D apple, it’s their culture of thinking different, it’s their ideology of building products as part of a complete ecosystem. The ‘brand’ is how this culture/ideology is shared with and perceived by the customer base.

    Consider the Coke Brand for instance… it’s said to be worth billions of dollars. The red curly text is only one small component that made this possible… it was a Sales staff focused on getting the drink in every convenience store. It was the operations staff focused on getting it to taste the exact same every time. I twas the advertising staff that put the logo in front of millions of people watching the super bowl. A brand is far more than a logo… it’s a way of thinking, the core identity of a company. People who focus on ‘branding’ realize that the brand represents a combination of all these factors and that by focusing on how each elements affects the brand, you can improve the chance that your customers perceive the company in the way you desire… something a logo-alone could never accomplish.

    That’s my $0.02 anyway.

  • Derek

    One additional point to my last response… Perhaps the biggest difference in the way I perceive branding vs. the original post and the first response from mnead is because I work at the client level. For us, branding comes into every decision we make as a company. When we’re in operations meetings we’re talking about the brand, when we’re in new-product meetings we’re talking about the brand, same with Marketing and sales obviously.

    When you work for an agency, you have less control over the ‘actual brand’ and more with how that brand is packaged and presented… so in that instance, I’d say there is may be some truth to the idea that branding can be overrated. Still though, focusing on the brand means you’re considering all elements as a piece of the whole. You aren’t developing a logo or a ad campaign in a vacuum… but rather with careful consideration for each individual element.

    • XK9


      I found your comment a little hard to digest. You claim to “disagree strongly with just about every word” I offered. I don’t think you understand what I was saying. You seem to come around to agreeing with the idea that agencies are ineffective at controlling brand perceptions.

      You offer your complementary psychoanalysis of my “fundamental problem”. Yet, I in no way claim that a logo is a brand. In fact, I state that visual identity (which is much more than a logo) is but a single component of the consumer experience. While I may have a “fundamental problem” I doubt it could be deduced from this essay.

      As you state, you work within a company and are apparently responsible for some form of consumer interaction. You’ve bought into the idea of calling what you do “branding” as if that is a controllable thing. What you are doing is most likely some form of marketing or public relations. You might work with advertisers or designers. But you are not a “brander.”

      As I state in the essay, brands exist independent of any product, business practice, or consumer interaction. This is why I find the whole concept of “branding” to be one of delusional bullshit.

      We have other, time-honored words for business practices (and areas of expertise) that define an entity’s consumer interaction. Marketing. Public relations. Advertising. Design. These are practices that require skill, intelligence and creativity.

      Branding attempts to package marketing, public relations, advertising and design under one heading. But “branding” in and of itself is not a definable practice. Marketing doesn’t work in service of branding; it supports and promotes the corporation (or other entity). Likewise the other three.

      I shared my particular expertise at the end of the essay to explain my motivation in decrying the bullshit of branding. I am an experienced creative professional who attempts daily to provide effective, meaningful and lasting graphic design to my clients. I see the whole stratified concept of branding as a threat to my effectiveness and to my business. When businesses and business leaders buy into a branding consulting model it insulates the leaders from people like me. And in turn, the designer receives information through a filter of strategists and executives. That kind of subversion kills meaningful creativity.

      The great designer Lou Dorfsman spent a career creating lasting images for his employer CBS. He was instrumental in helping CBS establish its reputation as “The Tiffany Network.” CBS was seen as a class act and Dorfsman had a hand in that public perception. Late in his career, Dorfsman bemoaned the changes at CBS that were marginalizing his effectiveness. At the same time his was being lauded by his peers. At that time Dorfsman remarked, “I used to be called a commercial artist and I worked directly with Bill Paley (legendary head of CBS). Now I’m Director of Design and I report to the head of marketing.”

      Branding is just another attempt to put another salesman between the customer (in this case– business) and the craftsman (me).

      Bill Dawson

      • Derek

        Thanks for the detailed reply… Here’s why I fundamentally disagree…

        “As you state, you work within a com­pany and are appar­ently respon­si­ble for some form of con­sumer inter­ac­tion. You’ve bought into the idea of call­ing what you do “brand­ing” as if that is a con­trol­lable thing.”

        I’m a bit dismayed that someone in the industry would suggest that a ‘brand’ isn’t controllable. You said in your original article that a brand is essentially the ‘collective experience’ of the customer. As marketers/designers/advertisers/etc. I’d argue that it’s our fundamental job to affect the brand of the companies we work for. Of course the brand is controllable, millions of people work at manipulating brands to improve their value every day, including you.

        “What you are doing is most likely some form of mar­ket­ing or pub­lic rela­tions. You might work with adver­tis­ers or design­ers. But you are not a “brander.””

        I think some of our disagreement, as I stated earlier, on this topic is due to the fact that you work at the agency level and I work at the ‘client’ level (technically not a ‘client’ as we don’t actually work with agencies at all). As such, you’re seeing branding as a combination of the marketing/design efforts but also a whole bunch of things that you can’t control such as the quality of the product/service, the quality of the customer support, the frequency of new products, the distribution, etc.

        What I’m saying is that you’re exactly right that 100% of these things affect the larger ‘brand’, but dead wrong that it doesn’t make sense to have individuals in the organization who’s role is to align these efforts and help to ensure that each customer touch point is successful at adding value to the brand, and that somehow designers or others must work outside of this essential focus. I would venture a guess that at the agency level, since new clients are similarly known to both the ‘branding’ person in your organization as they are to you, the head designer, that you feel that their opinion isn’t worth any more than yours and that their suggestions merely stifle your creativity and work. I can totally understand that… but fundamentally disagree that such an experience warrants the blanket statement that branding is bullshit and isn’t affected by ‘branding experts’ or ‘marketers’ in any way.

        “As I state in the essay, brands exist inde­pen­dent of any prod­uct, busi­ness prac­tice, or con­sumer inter­ac­tion. This is why I find the whole con­cept of “brand­ing” to be one of delu­sional bullshit.”

        You do say this, yet I fail to see the ramifications of such a suggestion… yes, of course companies have identities or brands even if they never do any marketing, etc. How does this in any way suggest that doing design/marketing/branding can’t play an enormous role in changing the brand for better or for worse?

        When we come up with new products in my company, we could simply design the product any old way, slap a generic name on the product, push it out to our sales department, and you’re right… it would quickly ‘have a brand’ in the market place. It would be a crappy brand, but it would be a brand.

        However, what we do as a company is consider the brand at each and every step of the project. When we’re designing the product we say to ourselves “if we add this feature, or make this small change, the product would be perceived this way… or it will work better for this type of customer” When we’re designing the packaging, we do the same thing… same for when we design POP, social media campaigns, print/web campaigns, etc. At every step of that process, we have someone involved who is a ‘branding expert’ who attempts to ensure that each touch point in the customer experience is promoting the same message and adding value to the same brand. This one person can bring significant focus and clarity to the project… and while the product designers, graphic designers, finance people, might not agree at each step… the end result is usually superior with their involvement. (this would depend a high degree on the quality of the branding expert obviously)

        “We have other, time-honored words for busi­ness prac­tices (and areas of exper­tise) that define an entity’s con­sumer inter­ac­tion. Mar­ket­ing. Pub­lic rela­tions. Adver­tis­ing. Design. These are prac­tices that require skill, intel­li­gence and creativity. Brand­ing attempts to pack­age mar­ket­ing, pub­lic rela­tions, adver­tis­ing and design under one head­ing. But “brand­ing” in and of itself is not a defin­able prac­tice. Mar­ket­ing doesn’t work in ser­vice of brand­ing; it sup­ports and pro­motes the cor­po­ra­tion (or other entity). Like­wise the other three.”

        Nobody works at the ‘service’ of anybody in my mind. They all work together in support of the corporation. I don’t understand your 1-to-1 conclusion that the existence of these departments/professionals implies in any way that there’s no value to a ‘branding’ position or a ‘customer experience’ position. Seems similar to saying ‘well, we have a production manager, so I see no need to have a product forecaster on staff’. Both positions work together to product a better result.

        “I see the whole strat­i­fied con­cept of brand­ing as a threat to my effec­tive­ness and to my busi­ness. When busi­nesses and busi­ness lead­ers buy into a brand­ing con­sult­ing model it insu­lates the lead­ers from peo­ple like me. And in turn, the designer receives infor­ma­tion through a fil­ter of strate­gists and exec­u­tives. That kind of sub­ver­sion kills mean­ing­ful creativity.”

        The idea of middle-men is something I can completely understand. I think you’ve jumped the shark here by belittling an entire business practice/ideology/industry simply because your organization has a middle-man problem. That’s all. I’m trying to get you to open up to the possibility that your situation might be different than others out in the world and that ‘branding’ and ‘branding experts’ can actually be incredibly valued members of team.

  • GettingClosure

    Identity isn’t a random thing. It’s based on the brand.

    For example, I’ve been a part of teams that named companies. We didn’t just come up with random names. We tried to base them on the personality we wanted consumers to buy into. Names are powerful. Calling it just a name doesn’t fully explain what people buy into.

    For example: Urkel, Xander, Xaiver, Ben, Aaron, Killer. The way you name your sons unfortunately has a huge impact on how he’s treated in school. Despite looks, he gets teased and pigeonholed. We can’t have that in advertising. So we blow smoke up the consumer idiot’s ass. Fill in a few bullshit statements and you have a lure…

    Like putting yoga pants on a woman vs dickie slacks. Just not the same. The person inside is the same. Add makeup. Now she’s a bedroom goddess not just a plain jane.

    Really you should be barking at the consumers, not the branding teams. It’s been proven time and time again that branding does work. People are stupid. They buy into both the looks and personality of people. They do the same with products. Because they are morons.

  • Steve Osborne

    Hi there Bill. I just stumbled across your post and oh boy, did it ring some bells! Meaning, at least one other person shares my view about the pseudo discipline of “branding.”

    You might care to read my own treatise on a similar vein:

    • GettingClosure

      Your thread seems interesting. But ironically your site seems a bit hypocritical. You might just have bullshit marketing of your own. You just don’t see it. You are branding your services as POWER marketing. LOL. Unbelievable. Why not just call it marketing? Why the bullshit buzzwords?

      This line of thinking seems no more than a jaded attempt to lash out at the agencies you hate. And hey I don’t blame you. I hate them too! But I’m not going to sit here and pretend branding doesn’t exist or work.

      But you are right on one account, branding stands for bullshit, but isn’t bullshit perse. Creating brands is part storytelling and part image. People have bought into that since day one.

      • “Power” Marketing? Where do I claim that?

        • GettingClosure

          Not you…It was the guy who posted above me. He posted a link.

      • Steve Osborne

        Thanks for your comments and interest in the article. However, I fear you may have slightly missed my point. It’s chiefly a dissertation on why “branding” – given its popular nebulous definitions – is clearly the wrong thing for service businesses to pursue. Rather, concentrate on basic marketing tenets.

        As far as the unsolicited critique of my website and business is concerned, I don’t claim to be “branding” my services as anything other than small and service-based business marketing. If I have given a misleading impression, perhaps you’re right and I should review the presentation.

        POWER is an acronym for the (very) simple method I use to demonstrate the marketing/sales process to business owners. Giving this process a name is an attempt to differentiate my approach from a plethora of others – Marketing 101 methinks. Hardly cause for disbelief or calling it a BS buzzword.

        • GettingClosure

          Apologies for being admittedly harsh.

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  • booby

    I’ve been a graphic designer for 20 years. I’m now at the stage in my career where I simply can’t take any more bullshit. Terms such as key movers and shakers are used on a daily basis. @ Gettingclosure. Spot one, this blog has out bullshitted the bullshit.

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  • thisisgrey

    Yep, you’re right. And I’ll add that the irruption of UX as a discipline has cornered branding even more in the bs side of the business. I think branding could redefine itself as a practice and bring new tools and methods to prove its worth but most of the industry is still in bs mode.

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