The most misunderstood word in branding (part 1 of many)

You should really get this on the first try. It’s in the blog title. At the end, for emphasis. Yes, it’s branding itself, or brand, whether used as a noun or a verb, whether said in irony or with conviction, whether seethed through the mouth of a Williamsburg hipster or cluelessly yet confidently powerpointed by a consultant in a boxy suit. Brand, brand, brand. It seems we’re stuck with it.

And so, since we at Treebird are in the business of this most confused and confusing of terms, we thought we should give our two cents on the matter.

Two anecdotes. I was on the phone with an old friend who is likely reading No Logo to his four-year-old at this very moment and greatly offended him by telling him that he, himself, had a brand of sorts. He insisted, in no uncertain terms, that he was a human being, not a commodity, a personality, not an unneeded good to be foisted upon consumers. Fair enough. But he still has a brand, and he just proved it.

Then I was reading a profile of Anthony Bourdain in Sky magazine (Delta forever!), in which he stated, very seriously: “I’ve tried very hard to do as creative and subversive television as possible for a long time. Anytime anyone thinks they’ve identified the brand, f*** up that whole notion or subvert it.”

OK. Except that when you do that, you’re just reinforcing, strengthening, reifying your brand. But probably he knew that? I mean, this doesn't look like a man without a brand, does it?


The thing is, both my friend—let’s call him Stanley—and Tony Bourdain both fall prey to a pretty common myth: “brand” must equate with straight-laced, establishment, corporate, boardroom, Wall Street/Madison Avenue, consumerist culture, slick advertising, static, capitalist, the 1%, etc. Stanley was offended because he thought my association of him with the b-word word instantly commodified him. Bourdain hated the idea of being predicable and ordinary that he felt went part and parcel with having a “brand.”

Except, Bourdain does have a brand: he’s an iconoclast, a curmudgeon, a secular humanist, a perspectivist, an original voice. Of course he wants to subvert the expected—that’s the brand he’s been cultivating ever since the publication of Kitchen Confidential. So when he “f**** up that whole notion,” he’s just doing what he reliably does.

Stanley has a brand—he’s a thoughtful, environmentally conscientious, also subversive, independently minded, free-thinking individual who goes out of his way not to buy Nikes or McDonald’s or shop at Wal-Mart. Of course he hates “branding” as the corporate world has defined it for us because for him it signals the worst of capitalism, consumerism, colonialism, exploitation, and degradation. But in railing against branding, he’s doing what he reliably does.

So maybe, then, a brand can be—at least in part—what any person or business or restaurant or apartment complex or artist or author or television personality reliably does, over and over. We don’t need to take a dramatic shower to wash that filth off us, do we?