The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Time to know what a brand is

Nick Southgate argues that a debate about the metaphysical status of brands is long overdue and should start right here and now.

Case for a coherent world view

Philosophy works because a philosophical commitment is not a mere intellectual exercise. The philosopher must form a coherent world view. The cost of holding one view can mean defending another counter-intuitive or apparently paradoxical one. For example:

Bishop Berkeley took the common sense view that we only truly know our own perceptions and experiences. To defend this he came to the philosophical conclusion that only thoughts exist and that the material world was an illusion — a far from common-sense solution.

Brand thinking would be much improved if it submitted itself to such rigours. Casual acceptance of the intriguing and plausible can disguise contradictions, absurdities and worse without proper examination.

Some will, of course, be sceptical about Barnham’s approach. Others will simply be cynical. Both parties tend to assume that philosophy is other worldly. They impugn it as impractical. I want to urge the absolute reverse to the reader. A discussion of the metaphysical status of brands is, in fact, long overdue. We should only be sceptical about why it has not happened sooner.

The philosophical debate about substance is far from archaic. It is alive and well. David Wiggins’ book Sameness & Substance, first published in 1980, had its status as a contemporary classic of metaphysics confirmed when an updated version, Sameness & Substance Renewed, came out in 2001. My own PhD dealt with the metaphysic of personal identity — the notion that persons are a kind of substance. My PhD supervisor, E.J. Lowe, continues to write prolifically on metaphysics and the issue of substance.

Beginnings and endings

Philosophically substance is important because it tells us how things behave. Central to this is understanding where things begin and end. Take, for example, a cat. You know where the cat’s boundaries are. It begins at its head and stretches out to its feet and tail. You also know when a cat begins and ends in time. At some point it is conceived, born as a kitten and (hopefully) grows to be an old moggy, before it goes the way of all living things. The precise beginning (does the cat start at conception or birth, or somewhere in-between, or even before?) and the precise end (when does death actually occur?) are difficult to establish. However, we remain clear that cats have beginnings and endings.

If all this seems obvious consider a mechanical object like a watch. If you take it apart and put it together again does it go out of existence while on the work bench in pieces? Do you in effect make a new watch from all the same pieces as the old watch?

The considerations become even more complex for things like numbers. Numbers are definitely real. They also don’t go in and out of existence. But what is the nature of this permanence? Also, where do numbers exist? We might imagine a perfect digit ‘8’ floating on a cloud, but that won’t cut it in the world of metaphysics. Numbers seem to be real and permanent yet to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

If things like cats, watches and numbers can cause us so much complexity, what kind of things should we say brands are? Brands, whatever they turn out to be, are complex things.

David Ogilvy offered an iterative definition of the brands, offering a long list of important factors (David Wiggins approves of such definitions for complex substances like persons. Roughly they work as and/or qualifications for being something. None is singularly necessary or sufficient to define a substance, but collectively they can).

The sum of a brand

Ogilvy said a brand is “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes: its name, packaging, and price, its history, its reputation, and the way it’s advertised”. Ogilvy’s list is excellent. You wouldn’t add much to it. (Its focus is on products. To cover services you would add a way to doing business, or a business model.) Usefully, it begins to tell us where a brand begins and ends, that is to say where we should look for its boundaries?

This is important because it helps us tell us where to look to understand a brand, and how to manage it.

Brand Management must be one of the few disciplines in the world that manages something it can’t point to — like a shepherd who is unclear what a sheep is. Knowing the answer to this question is emphatically not merely intellectual.

Look at the stock values of companies like Twitter (around $4.5bn), LinkedIn (around $3bn) and Spotify (around $1bn). None have made a profit. Twitter is not even clear how it could make money. Spotify sits in a music industry seemingly incapable of making money. A huge part of this value is the brands. All the staff, servers and buildings won’t total more than a few millions. That’s billions of value placed in something people can’t define. That is an emphatically practical problem.

Cost of brand mismanagement

In a world where brands are worth billions it is scandalous we don’t know what they are. Real jobs, real people, real value rests on getting the answer right. Misunderstanding the answer — not knowing when or how brands begin and end — will lead to their mismanagement. That mismanagement will itself be costly, and potentially harmful.

It is time to stop indulging in brand models that are mere metaphors. Idle and unthinking references to essences, personalities, core values, and so forth are distractions if not handled carefully. Such talk should be reserved for stimulating ideas, and quarantined there. For the real business of brand management, it is time to stop. It is not enough to know what a brand is like. It is time to know what a brand actually is.


Nick Southgate
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2011