“The price of metaphor is eternal vigilance”
It is a truth universally acknowledged that consumers find it natural to imbue brands with human personality characteristics, such as ‘honest’, ‘optimistic’, ‘cool’ or ‘tough’.
That brands are like human beings, that they have differentiating personality traits, and that consumers have relationships with them remains still, largely unchallenged dogma in marketing circles.
And yet – the legend of Ernest Dichter, and the acres of subsequent academic theorizing notwithstanding – the fact remains that personality traits are poor at differentiating brands, within any given category different brands do not attract different kinds of buyers, and people are not that attached to brands.
Surely it is time to retire the brand-as-person metaphor.
Indeed perhaps it’s time to find a metaphor (if we must have one) more suited to our times. For while much of our inherited brand theory baggage values the intangible, as Guy Murphy has noted:
The democracy of information has allowed consumers to focus hard on the more rational and ‘real’ aspects of the product itself. Social commentary and ratings have particularly brought tangible product performance itself to the fore. The most emotionally rich brands can be undermined by a one-star product rating. This is as true for products as it is for the companies that make them… There is a shift occurring from adding intangible value to adding tangible value. Instead of adding emotion to function, brands are beginning to add function to function. We don’t have to play out a brand as a metaphor any more, when we can do it for real. Brands will seem more valuable not just because they feel better but because they work better, or serve you better. This is not a denial of the emotional component of brands, it is just a different way of generating it. It is not about the power of associations, it is about the power of reality”
In such a world, perhaps we should be seeking a metaphor and perspective that more consciously attempts to reconcile the invisible, mental dimensions to a brand’s existence with its practical, and concrete manifestations in the world.
And in world which as Marc Andreessen has argued, is being eaten by it, we could perhaps, do worse, than think of brands as software.
After all, as he puts it :
In many industries, new software ideas will result in the rise of new Silicon Valley-style start-ups that invade existing industries with impunity. Over the next 10 years, the battles between incumbents and software-powered insurgents will be epic. Joseph Schumpeter, the economist who coined the term “creative destruction,” would be proud.”
No, a brand is not a person. But it is software. Both of the mind. And in the world.
This much we know. Brands are memory structures in the mind. They are the sum total of all our memories, encounters, impressions and associations connected with a brand.
And consciously or unconsciously accessed, they work to make a brand thought of in purchase and consumption occasions.
In this way, they operate as heuristics, rules of thumb that by-pass the necessity to conduct an elaborate cost-benefit analysis of all the options available every time we are faced with choice.
Viewed through this lens, brands are decision-making software.
This of course, has always been the case – it is the oldest and indeed original function of branding. But today we are now subcontracting our mental processes to software.
For now we have technology that can remember, find, anticipate, recommend, remind, analyse, compute, manage, measure, monitor for us. And in the wake of this technological – and with it, cultural – upheaval, brands are evolving into software that resides in the world.
Brands can now can remember what we like, and what we bought.
They can anticipate when we need to restock, repurchase, or renew.
They can suggest purchases, content, and experiences we will probably like.
They can compare and recommend purchase options.
They can respond to our service, upgrade, and replacement needs.
And of course as brands become more like software, unshackled from the constraints of the physical world, they and their functions can inevitably flow through our lives with ever greater ease.
So the brand is software. Of the mind. And in the world.
The brand-as-software metaphor certainly feels better aligned than the brand-as-person metaphor to the real role of branding role in consumer decision-making.
And it certainly appears better able to encourage us to take advantage of the new opportunities technology opens up for us.
Indeed the brand-as-software metaphor is much less of a metaphor, much less than a just figure of speech than the brand-as-person metaphor. It better reflects how brands actually operate, in the mind, and in the world.
So what might thinking of brands as software actually encourage us to do differently?
Perhaps it will encourage us to think of brands as fluid, adaptable, responsive, upgradable, and permeating.
Perhaps it will encourage us to think how utility (not just storytelling) can create meaning.
Perhaps it might encourage more of a rapprochement and productive relationship between those who make products and services, and those who tell stories.
Perhaps we might demand that brands be just as useful in the mind as they are in the world.
Perhaps we will grant equal status to the creation of memory structures, and to the creation of utility in the world, rather than set them in competition with each other.
And perhaps thinking of brands as an external manifestation of human mental processes will encourage us to think of software in human terms, rather than think of humans in machine terms.
So far, so good, possibly. But we cannot talk about the brand-as-software without talking about the OS or platform. If brands are indeed software, then what do they run on?
In a multi-platform, multi-device, multi OS world, the brand-as-software must of course be able to run effortlessly on, by way of example, both iOS and Android. If brands wish to be part of the fabric of the world, then they must be able to adapt to and run on all the dominant platforms out there. And that demands a new degree of adaptability of what we build.
But there is a more important OS the brand-as-software must run on.
The human OS.
That sounds easy and obvious, but the fact of the matter is that most brand builders don’t give enough of a damn about creating for the human platform. They ignore being interesting and pursue difference. They fail to work back from human drives, needs, wants, and interests back to strategy, and instead insist on working forwards from brand and product. They either fail to reinforce and sustain long-term memory structures, or they fail to refresh them.
Brands must work on the human OS, or fail. For the human OS always takes precedence over platform-level OSs, and is the one that we should all be designing for. Always.
Special thanks to Ben Malbon for prompting me to ask some hard but good questions.
Guy Murphy, ‘Brands in the digital age: The opt-in age of brands’, Admap, December 2013
Marc Andreessen, ‘Why software is eating the world’, The Wall Street Journal, August 20, 2011