Brand onions: The crying game


I’ve complained about them before. But it felt time for a slightly more considered examination of the brand-as-shape phenomenon. Because they’re dangerous. For despite their popularity in business schools, marketing courses, and the hallways of marketingland, they fail to accurately represent the brand, perpetuate false myths about the human mind, and fail to inspire and guide.

Failing as a memory palace

Is the brand-as-shape meant to be an accurate representation of the brand, its meanings and satisfactions in the mind of the consumer? If so, it’s woefully inadequate record of memory.

For if making brands ‘mentally available’ (i.e. easily recalled in consumption and purchase situations) is dependent on the quantity and accessibility of associations in the mind, then the brand-as-shape is so horribly underpopulated in memories it feels positively anorexic. Many brands-as-shapes fail to capture the sensory dimensions of a brand. Dismissed as ‘communications’ and not ‘part of the brand’, they tend to ignore the unique advertising properties successful brands have built up over time. And they certainly don’t capture the myriad of very personal memories many brands are connected with.

But the inadequacy of the brand-as-shape goes further. The brand-as-shape perpetuates assumptions about human nature that are not only fundamentally wrong, but get in the way of effective creativity.

Perpetuating the myth of the split brain

It would seem there’s not an onion, pyramid or temple that doesn’t split out ‘rational’ or ‘functional’ benefits from ‘emotional’ benefits. Needless to say, it’s nonsense.

We have of course long been accustomed to think of reason and emotion as being in conflict with one another, which is why this separation seems so plausible and few ever question it.

Plato started it, characterizing the mind as a chariot pulled by two horses – one well-bred the other obstinate – with the rational brain acting as charioteer, holding the reins and keeping the horses in check and on course.

And later we had Freud arguing that the mind was locked in perpetual conflict between the primitive id and the conscious and reasoning egoAnd of course the popular notion of a brain ‘divided’ into separately functioning left and right sides endures still in our collective consciousness.

But this delineation is unfounded.

The work of the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman for example, demonstrates how our unconscious, impressionistic, intuitive emotional system of thinking (System 1) provides System 2 with the raw material to turn into beliefs and actions. The two systems of thinking are not separate. They work and interact together and are physically bound up with one another.

Dividing the ‘emotional’ and ‘functional’ dimensions of a brand into separate boxes fundamentally misrepresents how human beings think and make sense of the world. Including brands.

Peddling the myth that the mind ‘ladders up’ to the emotions

This division between a brand’s rational and functional components encourages the belief that brands are built up from rational experiences and evaluations that then (somehow, perhaps magically) ‘ladder’ up to ‘emotional benefits’. Again the paraphernalia of brand management misrepresents the workings of the human mind.

As Kahneman’s work shows, System 1 – intuitive, emotional, sub-conscious, judgmental – is an always-on system of thinking. And it is this system that filters the world for us. In other words, feelings and emotions come first. They are not ‘laddered’ up to. Conclusions, beliefs and actions come second.

It’s worth turning to the field of politics to get some much-needed perspective. Here, the clinical psychologist and political strategist Drew Westen rejects the notion that voters begin their decision-making process by evaluating policy positions, with the results of these gradually ‘trickling’ up into voting.

The trickle-up process simply does not exist, he argues:

Voters tend to ask four questions that determine who they will vote for, which provide a hierarchy of influence on their decisions about whether and how to vote: How do I feel about the individual’s party and its principles? How does this candidate make me feel? How do I feel about their candidates’ personal characteristics…? And “how do I feel about this candidate’s stand on issues that matter to me? Candidates who focus their campaigns towards the top of this hierarchy and work their way down generally win.

Similarly, the cognitive linguist Professor George Lakoff has argued that:

First, voters mostly vote not on the details of positions on issues, but on five aspects of what might be called “character”… They are Values (What are the ethical principles that form the basis of your politics?); Authenticity (Do you say what you believe?); Communication (Do you connect with voters and inspire them?); Judgment; Trust; and Identity (If you share voters’ values, connect with them, tell them the truth effectively while inspiring trust, then they will identify with you — and they will vote for you). Positions on issues matter when they come to stand symbolically for values.

Our first response then to the world’s stimulus and events is as Kahneman has demonstrated, not dispassionate, conscious and reasoned.  We begin with feelings, hunches, intuitions and judgements. Only then do we get to beliefs and voluntary actions. Even those their unconscious origins are largely invisible to us. Our rationale side is the last to engage.

Failing to guide and inspire

There is undoubted value in pointing brand activity in the same direction. After all, if a key part of the game of branding is to build and refresh memory structures,  it helps to have a means of ensuring that everyone – both internally and externally – is on the same page and that a brand’s output is coherent. But the fact of the matter is that as an internal tool for stimulating and inspiring ideas and action, the brand-as-shape is woefully inadequate.

It’s inadequate because in prizing order and logic, it unwittingly fights the very nature of brands, consumer decision-making, and the needs of creativity. As Heath and Feldwick have noted:

Organizations tend to work on the basis of argument, analysis, measurement and factual proof (however illusory the practice of these may be). Within certain limits, such cultures can be highly effective in making the right decisions and efficient in implementing them. However, they can be very badly adapted to dealing with creative processes, with emotional decisions, or in general with anything that cannot explicitly be verbalized and/or measured. This has always created a tension in the creation and judgement of advertising, familiar to anyone who has ever been involved in the process: a contest if you like between intuitive judgement and the organizational need for measurement and logic.

Of course these kinds of models are attractive. As Heath and Feldwick note they reduce the chaotic and intuitive into something that can “can be pinned down in words, analysed with logic, and measured. It does this by projecting on to the consumer’s choice behaviour the same sort of rational, fact-based approach that is recognized and valued in the organization.”

Both Westen and Lakoff identify identify the same similar historic failing of the Democrats. Namely that they try and logic people into voting for them, bogging them down in the minutiae and argument of policy detail. Lakoff’s diagnosis for this  has more than a little relevance for parts of marketingland:

When democratic political leaders go to college they tend to study things like political science, economics, law, and public policy. These fields tend to use a scientifically false theory of human reason — Enlightenment reason. It posits that reason is conscious, that it can fit the world directly, that it is logical (in the sense of mathematical logic), that emotion gets in the way of reason, that reason is there to serve self-interest, and that language is neutral and applies directly to the world. The brain and cognitive sciences have shown that every part of this is false.

Their background and view of the world effectively blinded the Democrats to the fundamentals of human nature, rendering them unable to create a powerful emotional connection with the electorate. Unlike the Republicans who intuitively understood that reason, as the eighteenth century philosopher David Hume declared, is a slave to emotion.

If you want to move people’s behaviours, then you have to move them emotionally. So while the process of auditing and categorizing the elements of a brand might provide a sense of order, control, and rationality, what this brand-as-shape approach yields is something that not only fails to reflect the world, but is largely incapable of inspiring action.

Over-valuing defining and fixing

In world characterized by flux and speed, the brand-as-shape approach prizes the fixing of things. And the fixing of things in words. 

It treats the brand as an object, rather the consequence of behaviours, choices and actions.

As a consequence organizations find themselves spending precious time and resources fiddling with the nuance of minutiae of language. It’s an approach that values getting to answers through words rather than action.  And it’s certainly a world away from the agile marketing, the learning through doing, and the iterating that characterizes the next (non-legacy) generation of businesses.

A better way

Employees and agency partners alike need to know what their purpose is. But because it so fundamentally misreads the truth of the human mind, the brand-as-shape with its lists and diagrams fails to help anyone easily, intuitively and memorably grasp what your brand is all about.  After all, who can accurately reproduce a brand’s onion/temple/pyramid from memory?

And because it is borne of an effort to control, rationalize and systematize, it is fundamentally ill-equipped to inspire and guide action. Who has ever been on the receiving end of a brand’s onion/temple/pyramid and had their mind thrill, hum and whirr with inspiration and ideas?

The brand-as-shape fails because people (employees, agency partners, and people in the outside world) don’t consume and make sense of the world through lists and diagrams. They make sense of facts through the lens of narrative.

Westen’s prescription for the Democrats applies not just to aspiring presidents, but for anybody wanting to elect a brand in the minds of people. And it is a simple one. Provide your constituencies with a simple, emotionally compelling story about what you believe in that provides the structure, coherence and causality our minds search for.

As he notes, “attorneys who present their cases using the story structure our brains search for have an easier time convincing juries than those who present even highly compelling evidence without an obvious storyline to pull it all together.”

His articulation of what constitutes a compelling political narrative contains invaluable guidance for us all in marketingland:

It should have the structure our brains expect of a narrative so that it can be readily understood, told, and retold.

It should have protagonists and antagonists, defining both what the party or candidate stands for and what the party cannot stand…

It should be coherent, requiring few leaps of inference or imagination to make its plot line move forwards or the intentions of its actors clear.

It should have a clear moral.

It should be vivid and memorable.

It should be moving…

… it should be a story its framers would want to tell their children… because it should be so clear, compelling, and central to its members understanding of right and wrong that they would want their children to internalize the values it embodies.

So if we really want to move and inspire an organization (the minds of employees are after all no different from those of the rest of humanity), if you want to manage a brand’s actions and outputs so that they form a coherent picture in people’s minds, then define what your story is.

If this hasn’t convinced you of the inadequacy and redundancy of the shapes-and-lists-approach to managing brands consider this. Despite the size and complexity of the organization, there is no Nike onion, key, doughnut, pyramid, house, temple, or shape of any kind whatsoever. That should give pause for thought to anybody would would advocate brand bureaucracy as a necessary solution to having to manage large organizations. 

Your organization might have a brand manual. They have a running track at the center of their campus. Nike behaves exactly like an emotionally intelligent presidential candidate. It has a simple belief that shapes every action, every statement, every choice. One that allows it to be adaptable and agile. One that demands dynamism, innovation and action. The belief that there’s an athlete inside every body.

If there’s one thing you will not be doing at Nike, it’s polishing a brand onion. But you will be inspiring action. And be continually inspired to act.

So to all those wanting to inspire organizations yet enamored with their brand onions, temples, pyramids and the paraphernalia of brand bureaucracy :

Don’t believe what you’re taught in business school and accept that the world cannot be reduced to a geometric shape on a Powerpoint slide.

Update your model of how the human mind works. It’s out of date.

Recognize that your organization’s desire for rationality and order is at odds with human nature. And with creativity.

Accommodate yourself to the fact that the brand-as-shape is not a mirror of what is in the mind of your constituencies.

Don’t try and reason people into believing. You will fail.

So put aside this lot…

brand as shape.001

and find your story.


Robert Heath & Paul Feldwick, ’50 Years Of Using The Wrong Model Of Advertising’, International Journal of Market Research, Vol. 50, No. 1, 2008

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Georges Lakoff, ‘The Mind and the Obama Magic’, at

Georges Lakoff, ‘Untellable Truths’, at

Daniel Westen, The Political Brain: The Role Of Emotion In Deciding The Fate Of The Nation


    • Martin Weigel

      Hi Ben,
      W+K’s ‘Book of Dreams’ for Honda is indeed a good example of capturing a brand’s “aesthetics” and “stance”, to borrow from Phil’s comment. To share more would be to both betray client confidentially, and competitive advantage!

  1. Phil Adams

    The description of what makes for a compelling political narrative reminded me of Marty Nuemeier’s book The Brand Gap, and his components of a Charismatic Brand – 1) A clear competitive stance, 2) A dedication to aesthetics, 3) A sense of rectitude. Nike et al fit this model nicely. I like the book because it is predicated on the understanding that a brand is what exists in the mind of the audience, not what is enshrined in some brand onion.

    • Martin Weigel

      Three things that are absolutely nowhere to be found the onion and its like. Love it. Will certainly recycle that one – thanks for the reference, Phil!

  2. John Dodds

    And let’s not forget that Kahneman isn’t even saying that systems 1 and 2 actually exist as separate entities.They’re a metaphor. So there’s no point trying to create a model that aims to finesse them. But I’m sure we’ll read about it.

  3. John Dodds

    Nike’s idea of there being an athlete in every body is right on the money. Coming from a business strategy perspective, I’ve always argued that every single employee should know and understand what the strategy (purpose) is and see how their role contributes to its achievement. That means getting rid of pompously meaningless mission statements and distilling the essence of your competitive advantage into a very few words that everybody can understand. I’ve also always felt that business strategy and proper marketing share a similar mindset. Nike’s raison d’etre does nothing to dissaude me of that.

    • northern

      Well said John but you can’t spell dissuade
      The thing I find funny about Nike is the way everyone in marketing goes by outdated textbook rubbish AND used NIke as an example if ‘how to do it’

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  6. Adam Ferrier

    Hi martin

    I couldn’t disagree more. It feels like much of what you write comes from a place of learned helplessness From someone who is receiving brand onions and strategies and being asked to execute against them.

    Your criticisms of finding a metaphor to capture the important bits of what your brand stands for seem random and confused.

    How people make decisions and engage with our brands (kahnaman references et al) shouldnt be confused with the disipline of capturing what a brand stands for, it’s important bits, and finding a suitable metaphor to capture it.

    As you say – even Nike does it (with the proposition of inside every body there’s an athlete and using a running track to remind people.)

    I had a guy come up to me today and say have you read this (your article) I agree. At which point I got sad and thought that guy hadn’t been trained well enough on the value of understanding the building blocks of a strong brand, how they fit together, and the value in everyone knowing that -irrespective of subsequent communications. I fear you haven’t either.

    • Martin Weigel

      Hello Adam,

      I think that our biggest difference – quite aside from the confused, helpless, inferiority of my intellect and my lack of training as you see it – is that I have been schooled in manners.

      I’d rather be versed in decency, than an understanding of the building blocks of brands.

      • Adam Ferrier

        Whoops I certainly apologise. I fear my pent up frustrations of agency people forever saying brand onions etc are useless Just exploded in my response.

        It concerns me that planning is dismantling all the tools it had to help people build brands and isn’t replacing them with strong alternatives. So increasingly we are left with no option but to make it up. No skills but ‘intuition’.

        I disagreed with your article. I did however sincerely enjoy reading it. Thank you.

      • Martin Weigel

        Hey Adam,

        No worries. Everyone needs some kind of safety valve!

        Your point about the dismantling of Planning’s intellectual toolkit and the elevation of intuition over craft skills is a great point. On that you and I can certainly both agree!

        Look at Stephen King’s planning toolkit for JWT from 1972 (I think) for example. Loads of thinking tools. Though of course in the wrong hands (both client- and agency-side), toolkits quickly become process, which is of course something quite different…

  7. David B

    I quite like John Grant’s view of a brand being grounded in George Lakoff’s view of cognitive linguistics – i.e. that we don’t take in information about anything (brands or otherwise) in a logical, linear fashion, but in a circular motion of relative stages.

    I’m paraphrasing because I’ve nicked and simplified for my own ends over the years, but he contends that each brand has four senses of understanding – instantaneous, followed by a sort of rationality, then by a deeper (propositional in trad’ advertising terms) level of understanding, then. At the end of it all, a metaphor/shorthand.

    Of these, all are important. None die on the vine, but any one can predominate in the mind of a particular person, according to their nature and way of understanding things. It is merely important to create a structure of communicating (by whatever means) to use the most persuasive one to speak to the most valuable audience.

    it also kind of builds upon the idea that the instantaneous response and the rational/propositional work together in one space. I still don’t think many people would be persuaded on the propositional way of speaking though.

    I’m not doing it justice here, but I spend a great deal of time trying to at least limit the reliance on onions, temples, pyramids etc. I usually concede (in order to win the war) that they are perfectly valid as an introspective tool to focus upon, but completely useless when having anything to do with customers.

    Ultimately though trying to convince someone who has authored a brand onion of it’s limitations is like playing chess with a pigeon. No matter how good a chess player you are, they will just knock over all the pieces, shit on the board and strut around like they’ve won the argument.

    • Martin Weigel

      I think you’re right David… onions et al are at best an internal compass (which I’d concede is a legitimate role) – as you say, a tool for introspection. Or navel-gazing, more often than not!

      I think the dirty secret of these things is that they’re more often than not written after the brand has been successfully executed and expressed and rarely are the stimulus for great work (or whatever kind)…

      “Trying to convince someone who has authored a brand onion of it’s limitations is like playing chess with a pigeon.” That sir, is a quote that deserves a place in advertising history.

  8. Dan Parkinson (@deparkinson)

    Great article Martin – well written and compelling, and a pleasure to see Kahneman used in anger in a Branding context.

    Great point about brand-as-shape models being written retrospectively – suspect that many brand mangers are guilty of the classic Kahneman error of mistakenly assuming a causal relationship between their world class brands and the structured tools they use to manage them, perhaps overlooking the fact that the brand was already world class before they started (and reached that status in the days before brand-as-shapes).

    However, that raises an interesting point – what do you do when your brand is still being established and finding its feet? How do you grow a new brand to the world class stage without some sort of plan, before you have a story to tell?

    This is critical when there are a couple of creative agencies involved, but the brand isn’t established enough to have a clear centre of gravity. You need to make sure that the different creative teams are pulling in the same direction in order to build a creatively unified brand – perhaps there’s an argument there for putting something down in writing?

    I agree that I’ve never known anyone to be inspired by a brand onion, and we know we want our creative agencies to be inspired – but I see a role for some sort of strategic intent for the brand; and I can’t see how you can get away from writing it down, even given the limitations and restrictions of words and language. Any thoughts on how to tell a story that hasn’t been written yet?

    • Martin Weigel

      Hi Dan,

      I love your question – How do we tell a story that hasn’t been written yet?

      I think my short answer is – recognize that words are but hypotheses and get to executing fast.

      For my money, the creative brief is but a hypothesis for a story. And in this it’s as much a creative act as it is a strategic exercise. So I’d agree with you that a set of words is more often than not, a good beginning.

      But in truth, you haven’t got a strategy as John Hegarty once said, until you have an execution.

      And with the best will in the world, staring at a bunch of words and theorising guessing what they might lead to is no a substitute for actually exploring their possibilities and bringing them to life.

      You won’t know whether those words are right until you actually have an execution that works.

      (And if the execution doesn’t match the originating words, then change the words).

      Does that make sense?

      Thank you for visiting, reading and taking the time to comment. Much appreciated. Thank you.

      • Dan Parkinson (@deparkinson)

        Certainly does make sense – sometimes you just have to get on with it!

        I wonder if the best work, the most effective state of ‘flow’, comes when the work becomes less like a fight between strategy and execution and more like a dance.

        They may tread on each other’s toes a bit, but the more they practice, the smoother it gets. There’s no shortcut to great ideas – perhaps you can ‘force’ the process by introducing stages and deliverables, but really that will never be more than a slightly jerky approximation of a dance. So, true creative flow comes when you know each other (and the moves) well enough to dance together, reacting almost at the same time to each other’s cues.

        That makes me think that the most important work in any creative project has already happened before the project even starts – forming the culture and finding the chemistry that sets you off in the right direction once the music starts…

      • Martin Weigel

        You last point is awesomely spot on. If you haven’t got a culture that encourages that dance, or makes it possible… then you’re kinda fucked.

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  11. Reg Manser

    Really enjoyed reading your article. It’s nice to see someone pointing out the holes in the latest branding model, whether it’s a circle, pyramid or onion (in fact maybe a donut is the best analogy).
    I also agree that branding models are often constructed retrospectively, by reverse-engineering successful brands, whereas in reality it’s often the execution that creates the idea. Apple began its life as a truly terrible brand until the “1984” and “Think different” campaigns illuminated what the company was really about, and the brand was re-born.
    But marketers have a compulsion to construct methodologies and find it hard to accept that insights are reached not by laddering but by a leap of imagination.
    Finally it was great to see Daniel Kahneman’s work signposted, especially the importance of narrative in constructing ideas. I’ve been trying to pass on his message that people have 2 ways of thinking, and non-rational processes predominate:
    We spend most of our time trying to post-rationalise the decisions we make by instinct.
    Your article is a voice of reason in a post-rational world.

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