The Philosophy of Branding

Stuart Hannabuss (Aberdeen Business School, Aberdeen, UK)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 18 April 2008




Hannabuss, S. (2008), "The Philosophy of Branding", Library Review, Vol. 57 No. 4, pp. 317-319.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

As Wittgenstein said to Socrates, in one of those familiar invented conversations that philosophers like to devise, the trouble with the most famous Western philosophers is that all of them lived before marketing was invented. As a result nothing they said had any relevance to branding, brand value and equity and so forth. Fair point, but, as Thom Braun says, philosophy is relevant to branding (and marketing) for two good reasons: first, both are fundamental to the way in which we experience the world and think about it, and second, the marketing industry needs managers who are creative and can think critically about branding. It follows therefore that a working familiarity with at least some philosophical ideas makes good sense for successful brand management, because ultimately brand management is the management of meaning.

Writers like Magee and Baggini demonstrate how even complex issues in philosophy can be discussed with crystal clarity, but it is another step again to try to convince practitioners of any hue to read philosophy and tease out what it has to offer them. Braun is Vice President for brand development for the North American arm of Unilever, and as a former Anglican priest has an eclectic background that allows him to write wittily and clearly about two things – philosophy and brands – that seem to sit together awkwardly. There is some convincing stuff here, above all from Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Existentialism. Nietzsche questioned traditional values (think of his famous “God is dead”) but advocated new ways of thinking through values that mattered: Braun suggests that branding, too, is ultimately a search for meaning, that positioning tries to fit with and even shape the way we are and think we are, that people buy into super‐brands like Disney and Microsoft, and lose the will to power. So you see that the logic or inference is really quite beguiling, picking up on philosophical ideas that are plausibly‐enough connected with often‐quite‐difficult philosophical debate and applying it to brands.

Wittgenstein's examination of the ways in which meaning incorporates both uses and values takes us firmly to the heart of the management of meaning. Readers familiar with his work will know that, in a way like brands themselves, he investigated the ways in which things stand for other things. In marketing, Persil might represent whiteness and so cleanness and so social benefit. Detergent brands, then, are not just labels: they are tools for meaning, clusters of meanings, attitudes and contextual associations. What they stand for is only one aspect of their meaning. Of course, for brand and marketing managers to understand this and act effectively on such an understanding is the real name of the game. Existentialism and its roots in Kierkegaard's ideas about individuality (rather than systems) leads us to consider brands as expressions of individual aspiration, and successful brands as things that have personality enough to impel consumers to engage with them. Their very authenticity, then, in the style of Existentialists like Sartre, is tied up with how we engage with and experience them; their very impact is truly Existentialist.

The ways in which Braun successfully teases through these ideas and applies them credibly to brand management accounts for the success of this book when it first appeared as a hardback in 2004. This is its first appearance as a paperback in 2007. Some of the connections are more tenuous and could be applied as plausibly to fields other than brand management such as the environment or urban planning, but even then they hold up: the world of constant change (Heraclitus), is what a brand does the key to what it is (Aristotle), the need to consider the transitory appeal of a brand but also its deeper identity that might well keep it going for much longer (Plato's idea of the cave and Forms), Descartes' argument for reasoning things through (“I think, therefore I am” becomes “I think, therefore I brand”) and asking how consumers identify with brands like Coca‐cola (is it something inside their heads?), and Rousseau's case for relying more on feelings rather than reason (after all, do not brands express people's feelings?). Hume noted the limits to reason alone, as have marketers.

Others seem to advocate a style of thinking about things, brands included – Locke's emphasis on inductive ideas and how we come to know reality, Kant's knowing what we know and examining the very assumptive frameworks of knowing, and Popper's falsifiability (which for Braun is reason to take a problem‐solving approach to brand management and “get rid of the bits of the brand that don't seem to work”). If “smoking can damage your health”, let's ask (ask Leibniz often did) exactly what we mean by a true statement. Perhaps it is more that philosophers have chanced on the universal truths that pragmatists and practitioners have known all along: it is a thought!

At first blush it seems odd to juxtapose Leibniz and branding, but, if we accept that brands are as much tangible products as things that consumers think about, then it becomes relatively easy to accept the pairing. Management and marketing have had more than their fair share of gimmicky books and instant‐recipe‐knowledge vade‐mecums, but this one rises successfully above that level, modest paperback that it is (a book for the library but also for the airport book‐store). It is a book for managers in branding and marketing rather than for philosophers, but, devil's advocating, it might be a good challenge for conventional philosophizing to see just how true and/or logical (never the same thing, of course) it is to extend philosophical ideas to practical management. On the cover is Rodin's thinker, understandably perhaps, in a postmodern context, thinking about a deodorant. Food for thought when we reflect that, by juxtaposing ideas by violence together, the metaphysical poets came into existence, and they still have quite a good press.

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