Is Branding Bullshit? An Inquiry.

As a self-described branding studio with an outspoken aversion to bullshit, we figure it’s only fair that we address a question that has undoubtedly crossed the mind of anyone with a fully functioning BS-detector:

Is branding bullshit?

Certainly, the word “branding” has the distinct aromatic quality of Grade-A bullshit. First off: What does it mean? Ask five marketing types, and you’re almost certain to get five different bullshitty answers. This is because the word was reverse-engineered from a noun that actually meant something (the trademarked name of a product or company, e.g. Kellogg’s or Kleenex), to a verb that means whatever a marketer decides it means.

So I have always had mixed feelings about using the word “branding.” It smacks of bullshit to me. Here’s why.

  1. Most people think of “branding” as logo and identity development. But a logo and identity system are but one aspect of a brand.
  2. A true brand can’t be “developed” in an “agency” or “workshop.” A framework for a brand can be mapped out, and brand assets can be designed, but those things do not add up to a “brand.”
  3. “Branding” happens in the minds of consumers. What do you think about McDonald’s? Cheap and unhealthy? That’s their brand! How about Lyft? A less douchey version of Uber? That’s their brand!

I’m not saying that a name, logo, tagline, or marketing assets can’t wield significant influence how people perceive your brand. They can. For example, see below:


The, uhm, choices that led to this beer’s name and packaging design have had a powerfully strong influence on how I feel about the brand. Clearly, how you name, position, and package a product can influence how people perceive your brand. But those activities do not create a brand.

A brand exists only ephemerally, inside the brains of people, as Al Ries famously taught us all those years ago. So strictly speaking, by definition, creatives can’t “brand” companies or products. They can only produce ideas and create assets that influence how the brand takes shape in the minds of customers.

As you can see with Mr. Brown Note above, it is possible to create a powerful brand impression with a highly provocative brand name and identity. This is called a gimmick. And going this route comes with certain, ah, risks.

Ideally, a logo and identity design, brand platform, and marketing assets all work together to tell a meaningful story about your product and create an emotional connection between your brand and your audience. But if the quality of the product is crap, or if your company is a bad corporate citizen, even the most clever “branding” won’t help you.

All of that notwithstanding, we here at Matinee do refer to ourselves as a “branding and creative studio.”  As much as I personally dislike the word, we’d be foolish not to embrace it when it is widely accepted to mean “strategic messaging, logo, identity, and packaging development.” Which are, essentially, all the things we’re good at.

But the truth is, we create frameworks for brands. We give entrepreneurs and marketers the creative and strategic messaging assets they need to go into the marketplace and (we hope) prosper. But we can’t control the quality of their product, the quality of their service, or whether their CEO decides to kill elephants for fun. And those factors, far more than a pretty logo or a beautifully written brand platform, are what will “brand” your company or product.

So yes: We “do” branding. But we don’t bullshit you about what we can or can’t accomplish with it. Because to establish a strong brand with a loyal following, what firms and ad agencies call “branding” is really just the beginning.