The 4 methodologies of branding

Sometimes an idea becomes so well-known and widely held that people don’t even consciously recognize it as an idea but simply take it for granted.  The underlying assumptions are no longer questioned.  The idea passes from theory to law.  Consider gravity.  Before Sir Isaac Newton, people accepted that pendulums slow down and that two objects may bounce off of each other.  They were facts, nothing more.  Newton saw a set of fundamental principles behind those facts.

Over time, Newton’s theory became “laws”.  They were seen as sufficient to explain the world around us.  And for many centuries the underlying assumptions were no longer questioned.  Eventually physicists identified some special situations in which Newton’s laws could not explain the observable phenomena.  New theories of physics were developed, several of which are competing with each other.  Space-time physics, string theory, big-bang — all are theories that are vying for our attention and elevation into laws.

The same is true for branding.  For many years, brand positioning was the preeminent theory of branding.  From this theory grew a method for defining, creating and managing brands.   It has several different labels such as Mind Share or USP but those are fundamentally the same method built on the same theory.  It was popularized by Mr. Trout and Mr. Ries in articles and books.  It was widely adopted in academia, ad agencies and corporations.  At least two generations of marketers have known of almost nothing else.

Along the way the way special situations cropped up in which the brand positioning method was not sufficient to explain the success or failure of a particular brand.   So there was tinkering with the brand positioning method, adding a new twist here and there along the way.  But the underlying theory was no longer in question.  And the underlying assumptions were unquestioned, too.  Perhaps the best know superstructure — and most complex — was developed by David Aaker and his co-authors in a number of books such as Building Strong Brands.

Beginning in the mid-1990s several academics and consultants started to recognize more and more situations in which brand positioning was not working as it was meant to.  Instead of adding more complexity to the brand positioning method, they decided to opt out.  They began to question the theory itself.

Today there are 3 additional methods for defining, creating and managing brands, along with brand positioning  The first  method is Emotional Branding, popularized by the wonderfully brilliant Marc Gobe.  The second is Iconic Branding, which was formalized by Professor Douglas Holt formerly of Harvard and current at Oxford.  And the third is Narrative Branding (which is, by the way, also our trademark term) that was developed by me and Michael Thibodeau.

(In this list of the 4 methods of branding I am deliberately excluding some highly specialized methods created by individual companies for their own purposes.  The most famous of these is Brand Journalism, created by Larry Light when he was the CMO of McDonald’s.  Because this is proprietary to McDonald’s, it is not available to other companies.   It is like a hothouse plant, known to survive in the special environment but not tested out in the greater world.)

The questions about brand positioning have only grown over time.  Today the method and theory of brand positioning are being challenged by marketers at major corporations around the world.  In our recent study we found that  nearly 2/3rds of senior marketers are looking for breakthrough methods that are more effective than brand positioning (source: JupiterResearch/Verse Group study 11/08).

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