Branding. A powerful word, that. Much like the phrase “press freedom”, it means different things to different people. For me, it conjures up images of two naked cowboys glistening with baby oil and engaging in a little rough horse play while the branding iron heats up in the fire. Then they get to their feet, sweating and panting, and rush off to burn their initials into the quivering flank of a wide-eyed shepherd boy. I should never have watched Brokeback Mountain.
For the advertising executive, however, branding means something else altogether.
I should point out that I am not among the sheeple who religiously buy the same brands over and over again. When someone swears by a particular brand, what they’re really saying is: “Ooh, I love their adverts.” The difference in quality between, say, one brand of washing powder and another is smaller than South Africa’s chance of ever becoming a leader in commercial space travel. This is why, on more than one occasion, a shelf packer has had to physically restrain me from attacking Brenda.
Me: “We’ve been down this aisle. Seven times.”
Her: “I know, but I just can’t believe they don’t have it.”
Me: “They do. Look. Hundreds of them.”
Her: “Yes, but they aren’t the ones I always buy.”
Then her jaw becomes slack and her eyes glaze over. Sometimes I think she is receiving telepathic instructions from an evil Christian cult. All it is, though, is that she has been brainwashed by creative directors and hypnotised by graphic designers. Sometimes I think the cult would be preferable. At least it wouldn’t mean having to go to another supermarket, and possibly even a third, before finding the product she always uses. And it’s no good asking why it has to be that particular one.
Me: “Why that one and no other?”
She: “Because I like it.”
Me: “But why?”
She: “Just because. That’s why.”
I always find the shopping experience is enhanced immeasurably by conversations that make you want to gouge your eyes out right there in the fruit and veg section.
So much for the traditional concept of branding. What I find more interesting is that branding is no longer restricted to stuff you can put inside you, on you or around you.
A few months ago, I was approached by a brazen PR husky to speak at a function in return for two free nights in a hotel. Right away, this put me in a terrible quandary. I am a huge fan of free stuff, but I don’t do speaking engagements. My dilemma was resolved when a friend told me that if I accepted, I would be damaging my brand.
I thought perhaps it was a lesion on his brain talking so I ordered another drink and went and sat somewhere else. He followed me and explained that Ben Trovato is a brand that needed protecting. I thought he was a nutcase that needed incarcerating.
After a few more rounds, he got me to understand the essence of what he was saying. And I didn’t like it one bit. It made me feel cheap and nasty. Forced to see myself as a brand, I felt dehumanised – like a child soldier, only fully grown and incapable of handling a weapon of any kind.
Kellogg’s Froot Loops is a brand. I am a brand. Therefore I am a Froot Loop. My friend said I was putting Descartes before des horse and spoke to me in a tone that is more often used when communicating with one of those special people who grew up playing in the tailings dam of a nuclear plant run by someone like Homer Simpson.
Personal branding is a relatively new concert, as evidenced by this exchange that took place as recently as 1939.
Hitler: “We shall invade Poland!”
Goebbels: “But, mein Fuhrer, this could damage your brand.
Hitler: “My what?”
Goebbels: “Your brand. As Chancellor of Germany.”
Hitler: “Rubbish. They love me. Everyone will want to be invaded after this.”
If Hitler had been a little more in tune with the Zeitgeist and had hired a gay, black image consultant and a Jewish public relations expert, Germany would be a better country for it today.
But, as he would have discovered had his brain not rotted away with syphilis, brands are not easily created. It takes strategic planning, brainstorming sessions and marketing campaigns driven by enormous piles of money and bin bags full of amphetamines. It also helps to have ready access to lawyers (corporate and divorce) who don’t mind getting blood on their talons.
As I have discovered, becoming a recognised brand doesn’t automatically guarantee a supply of delighted customers and untold wealth. Especially not when it sits on its arse all day drinking beer and writing rubbish for a living.
I know what I have to do. I have to win the hearts and minds of the people who run this country. But I am far from convinced that branding will be enough to create the kind of emotional connection I’m looking for.
For starters, I would need to become deeply embedded in the civil service psyche. What I am most afraid of is being caught in there when the lights finally flicker and die.