Talk delivered at Brunel University Business School 4 December 2009

For years now, brands and branding have been associated with goods and services, mainly those we see, buy and use everyday. The world of marketing has focused on these because that’s where the big money lies, or has done.

We also know that business to business brands are important as companies are consumers of goods and services too. We have become conscious that it is not just the individual products or services that are branded to make them memorable and distinctive, but it’s the organisations behind them as well. There are all sorts of reasons why we need to be concerned about corporate brands. Trust is one. Our attitude to corporate brands in the financial services market is an obvious example. Ethics is another. We are increasingly concerned about the social and environmental impact of corporations on our world. As information travels further and faster we get to know what’s going on.

Of course, brand owners want us to know more (about the right stuff, naturally) and to know more about us, so we can engage more closely with their brands. Increasingly, they want brands to create an experience that builds loyalty, empathy and even affection. But managing that experience is not as easy as it was. To some extent that is the role clients want us to play. To help them coordinate every aspect of what they do, however and wherever they touch their audiences.

And it’s no longer just the consumers we’re talking about, it’s all of those stakeholders our clients want to influence. More and more this means investors, governments, the media, and, of course, employees and potential recruits.

The channels through which brands now interface with all these stakeholders have increased phenomenally. The internet alone has been responsible for transforming the world of branding by creating an astonishing range of networks and relationships. Brand management as a consequence has become much more complex. For the brand owners, it feels like they no longer own the brand at all. And they’re probably right. Even from a legal standpoint, the intellectual property safeguarded through trademark and patent law is either being directly challenged or ignored in many parts of the world.

Even more significantly perhaps, is the sense that stakeholders really do have a stake in the brand. One of the successes of branding is that consumers (as we still call them) are now much more proprietorial about brands than ever they were. “You can’t do that with my brand!” Or even “I’ll tell you where you need to go with the brand next.”

This has changed the nature of the relationship between the two parties. Probably forever. The idea of the brand increasingly revolves around a tense partnership, a tussle between those who choose to be engaged in the debate.

I believe there is a sense in which everyone is operating on a more individual, personalised level nowadays. For example, the division between home time and work time has eroded considerably. While there are more opportunities for employees to work from home rather than attend the office, the quid pro quo is that they are now contactable via email, phone and Blackberry on a constant basis. Not only that but great sections of the community are effectively self-employed or contractors without any single corporate affiliation.

Communications have freed us up and simultaneously enchained us to our work. And even when we are working we are using individual networks and contacts to make our business operate. Linked-in is an example of social networking concepts now operating in the corporate space.

All this is changing how we see ourselves. If we started out by being viewed by brands as ‘consumers’ this term now seems offensive – an undignified role in which we uncritically devour whatever capital and enterprise have to throw at us.

We moved on to being customers, whereby we were seen to have a contractual relationship at least, and the idea of customer service has gained traction over recent decades, such that businesses re-oriented themselves around satisfying defined needs and expectations, rather than just selling product. With all that’s been happen around us economically, and this time on a global scale, we must be ready for another re-appraisal of brands and their role.

Against the background of a corporate world based on wealth creation, enterprise and market-driven economics there has been a separate, parallel development in branding.

For some time now it has been clear that the power of brands to inform, engage, persuade and empower has not been lost on other institutions in our society, whether they are government bodies and departments, government agencies, non-governmental organisations, or entities moving from the public to the private sector, or becoming elements in a public-private partnerships.

The responsibility for delivering public services, including housing, transport, health, education and culture, for example, often in competition to private provision, has forced these organisations to see what they could learn from brands. Some of the lessons learned in the period of the Thatcher government in the UK clearly turned out to be flawed. Seeing a market in everything was an interesting paradigm in that it served to help re-focus some organisations on what they were there for, but, equally, many new structures built fundamental weaknesses into the system, some of which we are just beginning to discover as capital markets falter.

Nevertheless society needs infrastructure in all its forms. Without that continuity of purpose and investment, many of the services we take for granted would simply cease to be.

As consultants we have been involved in some of these changes, acting to help make change happen, not to comment on its political or social significance. Which is fortunate because, looking back over a lengthy career one sees initiatives fall by the wayside, institutions stumble and fail, errors of judgment become exposed.

But it’s not all bad. I think we are beginning to see how branding can have a social function that isn’t some return to Marxist doctrine post a capitalist collapse, but returns to my earlier notion of how we are operating as individuals so much more these days. And part of that individuality and the sense of personal identity and space in which we operate is counterbalanced by an awakening understanding of our wider social role in the world. We are coming to realise, perhaps a bit late in the day, that we can’t leave things to the experts, whether they are in government or in enterprise. Gradually we are re-engaging with our own lives and our interconnectness with the lives of others. And, of course, our environment.

It seems to me that we are in the process of seeing ourselves increasingly as citizens, members of a society that operates around places, infrastructures and enterprises, all of which have a bearing on our individuality and our part in a wider whole. In this context, branding can have a role in building these multiple relationships. Some of these will remain commercial in nature, others more social or cultural.

It’s one thing to identify change happening (perhaps not so difficult in present conditions), but it’s another to see what that change will mean.

So, for now it remains an observation, the beginnings of a discourse and a prompt for you and others to think about.