Brand: Language, Culture & Context

Posted by Sean Carton | January 27, 2016 | 5:30pm

Brand is.

Yup. That’s it. It’s really as simple as that. Brand exists whether we’ve done anything to create it or not. If your institution exists (and by “exists” we mean has any sort of doings with the outside world), you’ve got a brand.

To some of you reading this, what we just said might seem ridiculous. How can brands just exist? Don’t they need to be created through some sort of mystical process involving consultants spouting buzzwords in interminable meetings filled with arcane charts purporting to illustrate the very essence of your institution? Don’t brands require “Style Guides,” “Brand Standards Manuals,” and other forms of documentation that must be created at great expense but are never actually read by anyone? How can a brand exist without “champions” or “managers” to protect its fragile essence and promote its virtues to the world?

Because it can. And it does. If your institution comes into contact with the outside world, you have a brand.

This may sound strange to anyone who’s still clinging to the notion that “brand,” as derived from the marks that cowboys seared into their cattle, has to be somehow wrapped up in some sort of well-defined visual representation.  And even if you don’t recognize yourself in that statement, if you still use words like “brand” to stand in for your logo or talk about “branding” as a design exercise, you’re still clinging to the idea that “brand” and “logo” are, if not synonymous, closely related. If so, you probably also are clinging to the idea that your institution’s brand is something that you can control, either by strict adherence to a set of guidelines or (and, in some cases) keeping a close watch on how various academic and administrative units use (some say “butcher,” but we think that’s kind of harsh) your institution’s logo, color palette, or, in some cases, tag line.

Certainly “brand” as a controllable (if undefinable) thing that can be created, expressed in various media, and unleashed to the world under tightly controlled conditions is a great idea that can be pretty comforting to those of us who self-identify as “marketers.” Unfortunately, it’s wrong…and it’s always been wrong. To learn why, let’s take a brief detour and look at where the whole concept of “brand” came from in the first place.


Linguistics & Listerine

In one way or another, the concept of “brand” has been with us throughout human history. As soon as people gave each other names (or even just named the group they belonged to) they created a link between one thing (a name, a sound, a symbol) and a set of tangible and intangible attributes that differentiated one thing from another. It may have been as simple as naming a neighboring tribe after something that stood out as a differentiator – where they lived, what kind of weapons they used, their hair color, etc.– or as complicated as associating a larger set of attributes about a particular deity with an abstract symbol or name. Either way, we’ve got a long history as species of creating associations between one thing and another, using a symbol or a sound to stand in for ideas or objects. We usually just call it “language.”

But is it really that simple? Is language just about associating symbols or sounds for ideas or objects? Early philosophers who pondered the issues around how language works thought so. In Cratylus, Plato describes a debate between Socrates and two other men discussing the topic of the origin of words. The participants in his dialog present three separate but ultimately similar theories for language 1) the meaning of words arises out of convention and common usage and that the link between a word and what it represents is ultimately arbitrary; 2) that words are what they are because they somehow encapsulate the essential “essence” of what they refer to; and 3) that words have a divine origin. 

While Plato never comes down on the side of what theory he thinks is correct – in fact, he ultimately rejects the study of language in favor of the study of nature—the idea that words somehow “stand in” for the thing or idea they refer to comes through loud and clear. In fact, Plato makes reference to his Theory of Forms when Socrates describes how hammers made by different blacksmiths can still be considered hammers, even if they’re made of different kinds or iron:

“But as long as they [different blacksmiths making hammers] give it [the hammer they’re making] the same form—even if that form is embodied in a different iron – the tool will be correct, whether it is made in Greece or abroad.” (Cratylus 390)

In other words, a hammer is a hammer is a hammer, as long as the form and function are the same. The word “hammer” refers to an object with an essential “hammer-y” quality that everyone can recognize. When someone says “hammer” the person hearing the word knows what the speaker’s talking about because they both know about hammers in their most essential form.

This approach seems pretty intuitive. We understand each other because we both hold the same image in our heads linked up to the same word. If one person says the word, he or she should expect the person hearing the word to know what they’re talking about because word and image (in its most Platonic form) are linked, right? Well…not all the time. With all due respect to Plato, it seems as if “meaning” is a lot more complicated than that.

To illustrate, let’s say that Suzy and John are working on a carpentry project together. Suzy needs to drive a nail, so she asks John for a hammer. Presumably, Suzy and John both have the same idea about what a hammer is, so when Suzy asks John for a hammer she expects to get a tool to drive a nail. If Suzy says “hammer,” she expects John to think about a tool that drives nails (Figure 1).


Figure 1

Figure 1: Platonic view of language

Sounds pretty reasonable, right? But what if John happens to be a die-hard fan of a certain 80’s rapper famous for his baggy pants? Even worse, what if Suzy and John are listening to that rapper as they work on their project? Things could get a lot more complicated (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2: You can’t touch this Platonic form!

Stop! It may be time for a hammer, but which hammer? Plato doesn’t offer us a solution to our hammer problem in Cratylus, though he does try to tease out the problem of homonyms in Republic V where he posits that homonyms might appear (or sound like) the “original” word, but they aren’t the same thing, though they may borrow some of the original’s meaning.[1]

Makes sense, but Plato obviously didn’t have to worry about driving a nail with a bankrupt 80’s rapper.

Obviously, meaning is a little more complicated than the simple equivalency between a word and some ideal image shared by people trying to communicate with each other. As we can see from our example with Suzy and John, context seems to make a difference, too. Suzy and John may have been in the same room together, but John’s mind obviously wasn’t focused on the task as much as it was on the music he was listening to. The connection between the word and what it meant was different for both Suzy and John, suggesting that maybe the linkage between the word and what it’s associated might be somewhat arbitrary. “Meaning” is contextual, and because it’s contextual it’s inseparable from culture.

“Meaning” is contextual, and because it’s contextual it’s inseparable from culture.

As much as we’d like to take credit for this idea, it was Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure who tackled the idea in his Course in General Linguistics which he taught at the University of Geneva between 1906 and 1911. It was here that Saussure did something that changed the way we think of how language works in the world: he separated the sign (the “linguistic unit,” e.g. spoken or written word) into two parts: the “signifier” (written word or sound pattern) and the “signified” (the concept the signifier refers to). He theorized that they were two sides of the same coin, inseparable but different. There’s no reason, according to Saussure, that a particular signifier is associated with a particular signified other than social convention. When we associate the word “hammer” with a tool, it’s because we’ve all “agreed” (through the social use of language) to the association. If all of a sudden we all started using “banana” to refer to a tool used to hit nails, that’d work, too. Likewise, if “hammer” started referring to a yellow fruit, as long as everyone used it that way we’d have no problem purchasing and eating bunches of hammers. Figure 3 is a graphic representation used by Saussure to demonstrate his theory.

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Figure 3: Saussure’s signifier/signified diagram

Saussure asserts that language is a social construct and that signifier/signified relationships are established through human interaction, not any sort of intrinsic relationship between a sound and a concept. If such a relationship existed, he asserts, we wouldn’t have different languages or, at the very least, if there was any sort of intrinsic relationship between the signifier and the signified, the words representing a concept in two different languages would mean the same thing. As an example, he points to the words boeuf and beef. In French, boeuf refers to both the animal and the meat product taken from the animal. In English, on the other hand, “beef,” commonly used as the translation for the French word boeuf, only refers to the meat. If someone speaking English wants to refer to the animal, they typically use the word “cow,” “steer,” or “bull,” the choice of which depends on the sex of the animal and, even more confusingly, the presence of testicles or not if the animal is male. In case you’ve been away from the farm for a while and need a refresher, “steer” refers to a castrated male (known as a “bull” if full-grown) and a full-grown female is known as a “cow.” In the interests of time we’ll skip the words used to refer to juvenile members of the Bos Taurus family. Isn’t English fun?

Now we know that all this might seem pretty esoteric and arbitrary, rest assured that it’s not: Saussure’s work had a huge impact on the world, even if that impact took years to take shape. While it may have taken a while to trickle out of The Academy, The idea that language is central to how we experience and interpret the world is one that we take for granted now, but Saussure’s work has informed just about all work in social science, history, communications, literature, and, yes, marketing writing since Course in General Linguistics was published in 1916 following his death. Saussure made it clear that what we call “reality” was constructed through language, and once we understood that “reality” became something that we could control…and you don’t have to look farther than your medicine cabinet to understand why.

Listerine was invented by Joseph Lawrence, an American who had become smitten by Louis Pasteur’s ideas about infection and Joseph Lister’s discovery in 1865 that carbolic acid could be used to kill germs in surgery and everywhere else germs liked to live. Lawrence invented a mixture that seemed to do as good a job as carbolic acid and licensed the formula to local pharmacist Jordan Wheat Lambert in 1881. In honor of Lister’s work, Lambert’s company (Lambert Pharmacal Company) began marketing the mixture as Listerine, a wonder formula great for everything from cleaning your floors to cleaning your…ahem…nether regions to making your breath sparkling fresh.

Unfortunately for Lambert, Americans didn’t think they had a problem with bad breath. It just wasn’t a thing…until Jordan Lambert’s son Gerard came along.

Gerard Lambert realized that if Americans didn’t think they had bad breath he’d better make them realize that they did. Digging into the medical literature he chanced upon the term “halitosis,” a previously-obscure word used mainly by doctors who needed to describe particularly rank bad breath. Gerard then launched a barrage of advertising designed to “educate” the public about a problem they didn’t even know they had: “chronic halitosis.”

Gerard Lambert’s campaign relentlessly called out the social problems associated with bad breath (“chronic halitosis”). Mothers were told that their children secretly couldn’t stand to be around them because their breath stank. Young women were told that nobody wanted to marry them because their mouths smelled like sewers. Women with bad breath were painted as social outcasts whose friends talked about them behind their backs. Men were told they were unmarriageable because of their halitosis: what woman would want to be near a man whose breath made them sick?

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Figure 4: Halitosis. Who knew?

The impact of the campaign was immediate…and spectacular. Sales of Listerine shot up in 7 years from $118,000 to over $8 million. “Halitosis” – a condition nobody knew they had before the campaign started—became a household word. Listerine was on its way.

Looking back now, the Listerine campaign looks pretty unsophisticated and, to be honest, fairly offensive. But examined in the light of Saussure, it’s easy to see how it worked. By taking a word—a “signifier” in Saussure’s terminology– that was basically unknown to the general public (and therefore neutral when it came to any emotional associations) and linking it to shame, social ostracism, bad health, and general failure (Saussure’s “signified”), Lambert was able to construct a reality in which “halitosis” became Public Enemy Number One, with Listerine as the only product which could cure the scourge.


“Reality” 101

But does just saying something make it so? While it may be tempting to believe that anything said loud and long enough will become reality to the people receiving the message, the truth is that creating meaning is a lot more complicated and, as we’ve seen, tightly bound to a wide range of cultural, aesthetic, and practical factors. It may not be enough just to create the right message. It may also depend on who believes it…or not.

In 2000, writer and marketing-guru-extraordinaire Malcom Gladwell published The Tipping Point, a book which sought to explain why some things catch on while others don’t. He theorized that there were “three agents of change” responsible:

  1.  The Law of the Few: Probably one of his most quoted (and applied) theories, especially now in the age of social media, the Law of the Few posited that the spread of ideas was “dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” He further divided these people into three groups:
  2. Connectors who, well, connected people together. In social media terms, these are the people with the largest number of “followers,” “friends,” or whatever term we’re using to define social media success.
  3. Mavens, the Connectors of information. Mavens are the people in the know who we turn to for the latest and greatest information.
  4.  Salesmen, the people (regardless of the gender-specific term Gladwell uses) who are good at “selling” ideas and influencing people.
  5.  The Stickiness Factor, that ineffable something that makes people want to remember and share something.
  6.  The Power of Context, the conditions that exist at the time that make an idea take hold in those who receive it.

Out of the three, it’s probably been the first – the Law of the Few—that garnered the most attention. Even though Facebook wasn’t going to launch for another 4 years, the notion that ideas flowed in a predictable way through the Interwebs seemed to make a lot of sense. Although the idea of “viral” media had first been posited by Douglas Ruskoff in his 1994 book Media Virus! Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture[2], Gladwell’s assertion that ideas took hold after being nurtured, promoted, and spread by a select few “connectors,” “mavens,” and “salesmen” seemed to jibe with how we discovered new content online. After all, doesn’t everyone have “that friend” who seems to be the one always sending out new links, images, and video clips? Didn’t we all have our own carefully-constructed list of “go to” sites for news and info in our particular industries? Weren’t there always the “cool kids” who seemed to set the latest trends? The trick, from a marketing and branding standpoint, was just to find the right people, “seed” them with the information we wanted spread and then we’d just have to sit back and watch the virus take hold.

While the ideas in The Tipping Point seemed right in that common sense way that’s the hallmark of just about every best selling business book they weren’t really backed up by any empirical research. Sure, Gladwell quotes research from psychologists, sociologists, and even news anchor Peter Jennings, nobody had yet looked specifically at how ideas took hold online.

Nobody except Duncan Watts, that is. While still a professor at Columbia University, Watts published Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age[3], a book which popularized the new field of network theory, the scientific study of social networks.

Watts’ book covers a wide range of topics concerning the spread of information through social networks. However, unlike Gladwell, Watts’ theories are based on extensive research with large—approximately 61,000—people. What he found was that while people were, indeed, separated by approximately 6 degrees of separation (also known as the “Kevin Bacon Effect” and first discovered by psychologist Stanley Milgram), it turned out that the transmission of information along these networks weren’t dependent on specific “connectors.” Messages got around regardless of whether or not the cool kids approved them or not.

So why did some things become popular while others didn’t? Further research by Watts revealed the counterintuitive (and deeply frustrating for marketers) truth: ideas took hold because society is ready for them. Trends are like forest fires, according to Watts: there are lots of them every year but only a few turn into the kinds of conflagrations that make it to the national news. Why do some burn out while others burn down entire towns? According to Watts, the answer is simple: in some cases the conditions are just right for a big blaze. In most, the fires just flicker out after they’ve consumed the fuel available for them to burn.

So who’s right? Probably both…and neither. Gladwell’s theory of reality construction seems to make sense, but it’s based on anecdote and subjective observation, hardly what anyone would call “scientific.” On the other hand, while Watts’ hypotheses are based on lots and lots of empirical data, most of that data comes from very specific experiments which may not be generalizable to more than a very narrow range of situations.

While we’d all love to have a simple formula that guaranteed the reality we’re constructing around our brands always took hold and spread to our target audiences, the truth is that constructing reality is messy. People don’t always behave in predictable patterns. Some ideas take hold and others don’t and the reason they do or not usually has to do with a nearly infinite number of cultural variables that are completely out of our control. We can build it and they will come…or not.

So what to do?


Zen and the Art of Branding

When building a brand platform, it’s important to internalize the central fact that we can’t control everything. “Brand” and “Branding” are two different things: your brand is, existing whether you do anything to promote it or not. If your organization exists and comes into contact with the outside world, it creates a subjective experience in the minds of those who experience it, i.e. your brand. “Branding,” on the other hand, is something that you do…active steps your organization takes to shape a cohesive message that appeals to your target audience(s) in a way that communicates the feeling you want them to have about you. The two activities must work together and must be balanced between what can be controlled and what can’t.

What we refer to as “branding” is what you can control. You can control how you want others to see you or, in other words, what you ideally want your brand experience to be. Doing so usually involves defining the attributes of the experience you want your audiences to have with your brand…the typical stuff that “branding” projects usually work to uncover and define. You also can control how those attributes/qualities are communicated…this is typically the creative expression of the brand, the “brand identity” expressed through logos, colors, sounds (e.g. Harley Davidson’s signature exhaust rumble), customer experience (e.g. Disney), etc. The final thing we can control is the medium (or, more likely, media) the brand experience is communicated through: print, the web, in retail environments, etc.

That’s what you can control when building your brand platform. What you can’t control is how it’s received by the outside world. Brand experience is influenced by a nearly infinite number of factors including what’s going on in the culture, what’s going on with your audiences, how your audiences are being influenced by others, and how they’re being influenced by their own subjective experiences with your products and services. You can seek to influence all of these by varying degrees, but when it comes down to it, the experience of your brand is something that happens in the interplay between your organization and the outside world. “Brand,” like language as we explored earlier in this essay, is a collaboration, and the experience of your brand – the “meaning,” in other words—is formed in the web of interrelationships between what you say, how you say it, who receives it, and the context of that reception. See Figure 5.

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Figure 5: Brands are collaborations

In many respects, the act of expressing a brand through the act of branding is a lot like creating a new word. We can create it, we can define it, we can work to spread it to the rest of the world, but once it goes out into the “wild,” we have to accept that we’ve lost control of it to some extent. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work to make sure that it doesn’t lose its meaning, just that we must accept that meaning will always be influenced by language, culture, and context. We can work to create the reality of a brand, but the work isn’t over when the brand expression is launched…that’s when the work really begins.

Every touchpoint between your organization and the outside world presents an opportunity to communicate your brand. In order to make sure each touchpoint is communicating what you want, you need to be sure that you’ve fully understood how you want people to feel about your organization and have taken the time and effort to translate those brand attributes into an expression that makes sense in context. And because what happens at those intersections between audience and organization is in constant flux, tweaking the expression of the brand is a never-ending exercise. However, if you’re clear about who you are – clear about your brand—then making those changes is a lot easier. But remember: you control what you want to say, the world controls how it’s going to be received. Reversing the order never works: allowing the factors you can’t control to control your brand means that your “brand” never really means anything, at least not for any length of time. Starting from outside and working in results in a brand expression that instantly seems “trendy” and soon comes across as dated…because it is. Building a platform on the truth of your brand and staying true to that platform will result in experiences that resonate, even if we can never hope to have them resonate exactly the way we intended and exactly the same way for everyone.



[1] Kahn, Charles H. Plato and the Post-Socratic Dialogue: the Return to the Philosophy of Nature. Cambridge University Press. 2013 pp. 55-56

[2] Rushkoff, Douglas. Media Virus!: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994. Print.

[3] Watts, Duncan. Six Degrees: The Science of the Connected Age. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004. Print