A brand is the personality that identifies a product, service or company (name, term, sign, symbol, or design, or combination of them) and how it relates to key constituencies: Customers, Staff, Partners, Investors etc.
- "Brand", wikipedia.org
If I may say so, the above definition is bullshit, and people (as in the unwashed mass of people) are finally starting to recognize that.
During the first decade of the 21st century, the concept of 'branding' as a way of distinguishing one product or service from another went from being a useful exercise to being something of an obsession or religion. This change grew hand-in-hand with the number of high-level managers in various corporations who decided that 'brand management' was the key to making a marketplace statement and created entire divisions of people who dutifully cranked out ideas, not for improving or widening the appeal of the company's products or services, but somehow improving the 'brand'. The afore-linked Wikipedia page is nearly a copy-paste of what might be found in a 'brand management' textbook, trying not just to explain the benefits of branding, but also attempting to persuade you that branding has benefits, and that those benefits are of significant and irreplaceable value to an organization.
A number of things have come up in the world recently, though, that convince me that this trend toward greater and greater emphasis on 'branding' is ultimately self-defeating, and that process of self-defeat is already well underway.
First up was discovering The Manifesto -- a call to action for freelance and beginning writers to avoid treating oneself and the audience as a matrix to be navigated using the principles of 'brand management;. You should really read the whole thing, but here's the specific point that applies to the thesis of this blog article:
I am not saying that it is a bad or dishonest thing to try to sell your work. It is not. What I am saying is that I am tired of the rush to commodify everything, to turn everything into products, including people. I don't want a brand, because a brand limits me. A brand says I will churn out the same thing over and over. Which I won't, because I am weird.
Now, one could say that such an attitude is self-defeating; after all, the author of The Manifesto, Maureen Johnson, notes in an earlier paragraph a number of well-known writers who ostensibly are brands, along with their brand identities. One could argue, likely with some success, that recognition as a commercial writer (that is, a writer who sells her writing rather the one writing, say, for posterity) is closely tied to the degree to which your writing identity is easily identified.
But do you really want to be a successful commercial writer, or do you want to be a Writer? There isn't any secret formula for breaking into the 'pantheon' of so-called 'great writers', but a fairly consistent characteristic of such writers is that they defied brand recognition: David Foster Wallace wrote fiction, non-fiction, and essays that straddled the line. Isaac Asimov wrote about damned near everything. Shakespeare was both a playwright (writing tragedy, comedy, and dubious history) and a poet. Being 'put in a box' doesn't necessarily help you achieve these things.
The larger point, however, came later, when I discovered something odd about the game company that defines my life as much as any other: Wizards of the Coast. WotC is a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc., itself a huge game and toy company, but even ignoring that connection, WotC is without doubt the largest manufacturer of role-playing games and RPG material in the U.S. and probably the world. They also produce the trading-card-game Magic: the Gathering, the most popular game of its type in the world. These guys are Big Wheels in gaming.
So how come they're slowly being recognized less and less for that?
There are two major sets of awards given out in the games industry: the Origins Awards, assembled and voted on by the Academy of Gaming Arts and Design (an industry group composed of game publishers and creators) and named after the major gaming convention where the awards are given out, and the ENnies, a fan-based set of awards given out at GenCon each year.
As recently as 2008, Wizards of the Coast was well-represented in each set of awards. The 2008 Origins Awards saw WotC win two awards (Best Miniature Figure or Line of Miniature Figures and Best Collectible Card Game), and have influence on a third (Best Fiction, for a work based off the Dungeons & Dragons game and edited by at least one former TSR/WotC employee in James Lowder). In the 2008 ENnies, WotC was nominated in eight different categories (though in fairness, four of those nominations were for a single product, the Star Wars SAGA Edition RPG), winning silver in three categories and gold in four.
Fast forward to 2010 - WotC continues to churn out product at a rate commensurate to a publisher of their size, yet for some reason they can't get the same recognition for it. Though WotC is still a member of GAMA (they presented plans for both their Magic: the Gathering and D&D product lines at the 2010 GAMA trade show), WotC failed to garner even a single nomination for the 2010 Origins Awards. They did a bit better for the 2010 ENnies, garnering three nominations, but I have to see this as something of a slap in the face to WotC given that Paiso Publishing received ten nominations for a product -- the Pathfinder Role Playing Game and its associated regalia and adventures -- that's simply an extension of the Dungeons & Dragons "v3.5" rules that WotC abandoned with their move to D&D Fourth Edition. Even more to the point, Hero Games received three nominations for Hero 6th Edition, a game that's little more than a copy-paste of the 5th Edition game (though it was divided into two different books after complaints about the quality of the 592-page (!) Fifth Edition Revised book).
One would think at the very least that WotC would have been nominated under the category of Best Website: the official Dungeons & Dragons home page is updated regularly with news and product information, and while some of the gaming material released there is available only to those with a "D&D Insider" subscription, a fair amount of free material is made available to those who are just visiting, including the entire contents of the Keep on the Shadowfell adventure, including digital maps and Quick-Start rules.
Perhaps people don't like the emphasis on the D&D Insider subscription. Perhaps they're disappointed with a re-design that is ostensibly geared toward making it easier to find material useful for you based on game role (player, DM, reader of fiction, etc.) but in reality just making the entire navigation more convoluted and confusing.
Or maybe they just can't find the thing. After all, the D&D home page isn't the main Wizards of the Coast page -- going there allows you to see that the main company portal is divided into 'brands'. Though there's a handy list of 'brands' below the main splash art, clicking on the D&D image there doesn't actually take you to the D&D home page linked above -- but rather to the D&D 'brand' page where you can download the D&D fansite kit, read an explanation of just what D&D is, connect to the D&D presence on Facebook or Twitter, and, oh yeah, find a small box on the right-hand side of the page that invites you to 'Visit Official Site', which is where all the real info about D&D happens to live.
So if you don't already know where the official D&D home page is, you'll have to click twice through two different pages that are, for all practical purposes, useless to you to find out anything but the most generic information about the game. ("Dungeons & Dragons is the game that started the entire roleplaying game category. And D&D remains at the pinnacle of fantasy RPGs, offering the excitement of imaginative, shared storytelling and lots of social interaction—both in the game and around the table." Yawn.)
OK, now we know why WotC wasn't nominated for best website.
I've met a number of people who work in brand management for WotC, usually at conventions like GenCon and D&D Experience, and they're good people. More to the point, they seem to be fairly humble people who recognize that the work they do isn't as important to the survival of the game as the work of the writers and artists who bring D&D to life. But I have to wonder how much influence these guys have behind-the-scenes, because the web presence all but celebrates them to people who don't know any better, and the games themselves seem bent around a premise of 'branding' that diminishes both the games themselves and their value as a brand.
Contrast this with a company that branding people love to use as an example: Apple. Apple is one of the most recognizable and admired brands in the world, with an identity that most corporations would break international law to acquire. That identity includes some iconic advertising, from the legendary '1984' ad that introduced the Macintosh personal computer to the 'Think Different' campaign that signalled Steve Jobs's return to Apple, to the 'I'm a Mac, I'm a PC' campaign that made Windows fanboys everywhere despise Justin Long.
But if you go to Apple.com, you don't see a vague piece of artwork suggesting Apple's 'brand', you see the current hot product (in today's case, the iPhone 4). You don't see a navigation menu that invites you to sample Apple's 'brands'; you see a list of things that people going to Apple would want to know more about -- a link for each product line, a link to the store to buy things, and link to Support to find out why the thing they just bought isn't working the way they think it should be.
Steve Jobs doesn't stand on stage at his keynotes and wax poetic about the direction the Apple brand is heading -- he introduces the new product and explains why it kicks ass.
There's no doubt that Apple uses branding techniques. But Apple uses those techniques in the service of selling products; it's the products that take center stage and, in the end, truly define the value of the brand. Allowing branding to overshadow the product, and to pretend that the branding itself is what provides value, as WotC seems to be doing, is ultimately a failure of branding -- the ultimate failure of branding, in fact.