Introduction by Rob Walker

Strictly speaking, brands do not exist. You can’t extract them from the earth, craft them in a workshop, manufacture them with industrial robots in a state-of-the-art facility, or fabricate them with a 3-D printer. You can’t put one in your pocket, grow it on a farm, put a fence around it, fling it through a window, or leave it at a restaurant by accident. You can’t even download a brand. A brand is nothing but an idea.

Wait: Don’t ideas exist? Well, sure. But only by way of a kind of mutual agreement. That’s the case with any idea, such as Christianity, participatory democracy, modernity, or market capitalism. Speaking of capitalism, the fact that brands do not exist does not mean brands are worthless; indeed, they have value that can’t be denied—unless, of course, you don’t believe in the idea of money. This is why the stakes around branding are so high in today’s marketplace, and thus why so many genuinely smart people enmesh themselves in the business of figuring out how to do it right.

Debbie Millman has rounded up a rather impressive cross section of such practitioners to discuss and debate, among other things, what it means to do just that. The result is a consistently insightful collection of conversations about branding, one that should be illuminating to new students of the form as well as hardened practitioners and everyone in between. I’m forever meeting people who think “a brand” means nothing more than a logo, or that it merely encompasses TV ads; perhaps now I can carry around this book, and hand it over by way of explanation.

Probably everybody has his or her own definition of brands and branding—you’ll certainly find it’s been defined in a number of ways in Brand Thinking. My view is that branding is the process of attaching an idea to some object, or to a service or organization. That idea can be fairly straightforward: This brand of oats (or car or hammer) is of dependable quality. Or the idea can be extremely ambitious: This brand of mobile phone (or denim or yogurt) possesses and reflects a maverick and creative worldview.

Creating these kinds of associations is a complicated process, involving design, anthropology, advertising, public relations, semiotics, and, of course, the often-overlooked factor of tangible reality. (If your airline’s planes fall from the sky on a regular basis, that defines your brand, no matter how cutting edge your social-media strategy, award-winning your advertising, or appealing your logo may be.) All those disciplines, and more, are represented in the interviews that follow; you’ll read the views of professionals within companies, those who advise them, journalists and thinkers who write about them, and gurus who aim to extract larger points from all of the above.

Often the views expressed vary and even clash, as well they should. Branding is the sort of topic that practically demands disagreement if it’s going to be talked about seriously. But while I might have different opinions on this or that subject than some of the interviewees do (actually, I’m not even sure I’m willing to go along with the implications of this book’s subtitle!), I arrived at the end of the collection having learned quite a bit. You will, too. Because this book is no rote anthology of boilerplate lectures. It’s more like a buzzing dinner party, where you never know who is going to say what.

Millman is the ideal host to choreograph these discussions. This isn’t just because, as president of design at Sterling Brands, she is an esteemed professional herself, or because she has established a track record of conducting thoroughly researched and provocative interviews in her Internet radio program Design Matters. It’s because on some level these aren’t interviews at all: They’re conversations. She’s engaged with her subjects, she listens, she pushes back, she shows surprise, she gets people to move past their standard talking points. Reading the resulting conversations is like following her through the party, eavesdropping as she works the room.

While a distinct optimism runs through the book, there’s also enough friction at the edges to keep it lively, and challenging. As much as the reader learns, he or she is also, finally, left to think through the numerous issues and draw original, individual conclusions. For starters, you’ll likely end up crafting your own definition of brands and branding from the many variations offered here. Wally Olins sets the tone by pointing out, “It is ludicrous to think that advertising is the only way in which an organization can communicate who or what it is.” I’ll leave it to you to discover Olins’ definition in the pages ahead, but first, a few other perspectives: “Brands are a ubiquitous part of our culture. Everyone interacts with them, everyday,” Brian Collins points out in one of the dialogues. “Brands are totems,” argues Cheryl Swanson in another. “People who are honest about branding understand that the Catholic Church is, by definition, a brand,” asserts Seth Godin in a third.

A striking number of thinkers in this book connect the brand idea to the tribal instinct, and some connect elements of branding to the nature of human-ness itself. And you’ll even find some challenges to the practice: “We don’t need to have branded water,” Dori Tunstall states flatly in her conversation with Millman.

I came to my own definition as a result of stumbling upon “the brand” as a subject of journalistic interest, rather than stalking it as an aspiring strategist. That is, I came to it as one of those people—just like those who frustrate me today—who initially shrugged off branding as some trivial matter of symbols and slogans that didn’t amount to much. Years of reporting and thousands of written words later, I’ve obviously changed my mind about that. I’ve learned a lot, and thanks to books like this one, I’m learning still. “Brands exist in the minds of people who interact with them,” Brian Collins observes in his interview. I couldn’t agree more. And for better or worse, this is exactly why branding matters.

Rob Walker is the author of Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are

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