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On Bad Branding


In last Friday’s New York Times, David Brooks invokes both marketing and branding as the opener for a column on the Michael Cohen hearings. It is certainly appropriate to invoke these terms in relation to the current president, who is a kind of brand savant as has been written about here, but what troubles me about Mr. Brooks’ use of branding is the unfortunate tendency to equate branding with pretense, to define it as a kind of falsehood that you prepare and wear to cover up the truth.

“In turning himself into a brand he’s turned himself into a human shell, so brittle and gilded that there is no place for people close to him to attach.”

— David Brooks

I suppose I cannot fault Mr. Brooks for thinking of President Trump as a brand. This precedes the presidency of course. I also have a hard time refuting connections between the Trump brand and falsehoods. I just wish we did not have so many examples of brands that win with lies. We, Tronvig Group, are out there trying our best to guide brands toward the best practice of building a brand on the solid foundation of truth. We know that a brand with staying power and longevity must not be a shell or an unsubstantiated espousal. And yet this other brand doppelganger—one that leverages the natural human and unconsciously controlled tendency to believe what is repeated frequently enough—is always there arguing for abuse of the power branding provides.

This is incredibly frustrating.

Every time a false brand wins, it lends credence to the notion that branding can be used to create a false reality, that it can—and perhaps should—be built as a pretense, as a means to obscure rather than facilitate the expression of the truth. This is contrary in every way to our core thesis that all brands—if they are to be able to stand the test of time and survive the rigors of close scrutiny that comes from brand experience—must be rooted in the truth.

All brands—if they are to be able to stand the test of time and survive the rigors of close scrutiny that comes from brand experience—must be rooted in the truth.

We don’t have two different words for these two kinds of branding. There is not one that means pretense and one that means truth. So I find we are constantly waging a battle to positively define the work that we do.

In an attempt to delineate between these two versions of branding practice, we advocate what we call 360 branding. By this we mean that the behavior of a brand is equally important to its external expression. What you say and what you look like matter, but these things must be consistent with your actions as a brand—your brand behavior. This means that you are responsible to practice what you preach. You are responsible to make sure that your brand is not a facade, a pretense, but that it is—at its core—a simplified expression of some essential truth.

This tension between brand as pretense and brand as an essential truth will not go away. The power of branding is too enticing a thing to expect that it will not be used for good and ill. So I come back to my refrain: if you seek to do good in the world you need to use the tools that branding provides to further that good. You should not be deterred by those who seek to use the same tools for more selfish ends.

Our work with museums and nonprofits always involves a certain reluctance on the part of our clients to get their hands dirty with branding. They get that it’s important, but there is a tendency to not want to get too deep for fear of being tarnished or of being taken to a place that is disingenuous, shallow or false.

Vigilance is in order with branding, but avoidance is dangerous too.


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  1. Gina says:

    I really appreciate your blog post around branding; we share the same sentiments. This, particularly, hits the nail on the head for me: We don’t have two different words for these two kinds of branding.

    Only today I described to a prospective employee what I think about when I use the very unsatisfying, flat “branding.” I think about how we as a firm want to BE in the world — our “brand” is actually our Way of Being, and necessarily includes a vision of the world we want our children and grandchildren to live in, and our commitment to how we want to intentionally walk into that world, how we are going to contribute through our work to the creation of that world. And there truly IS no satisfying word for all that!

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts …

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