Brand First, Then Product

Grant McCracken’s blog, on marketing and the like, is full of really, really interesting stuff. Like this: an idea for a “branding consultancy,” that would develop “brands” without products. Companies in the product business could come in and buy a brand!

I like the idea of marketing people visiting the brand consultancy, in our factory space in Brooklyn, and say, “yeah, I will take one of those and one of those. I will put down a reserve bid on that and that. Call me when you’ve brought it along a little further. This one looks interesting, but we have to see more before we commit.”

For those who believe there is or must be an organic connection between the product and its brand, this notion is a bad one. But the rest of us know that brands have their own origins, logics, and etiologies as surely as product ideas do. The connection can be made relatively late in the game without damage to either one.

Clearly this is all about cultural, branding and marketing architecture. What is the idea that is most compelling, legible, and opportune? This is a test of real marketing, because this is, mostly, exactly what marketing brings to the party, the enveloping idea that makes a technological package make irresistible sense to the consumer.

What happens, then, when someone makes off with a pre-formed brand and applies it to a product — without paying for it. Assume that our consultancy wasn’t able to secure a contract with the usurper, so that there is no breach of a promise to pay. What then? Traditional trademark law says: no liability; the “brand,” so to speak, has no trademark identity until it is “used” — and the first “use,” presumably would be the usurper’s. Copyright law? That seems unlikely, too; the “brand,” if I follow the original post, consists mostly of things that aren’t protectible via copyright law: “brand concept [nope]; brand name [nope]; design identity [maybe; must examine details]; an industry vector [nope]; a demographic vector [nope]; a cultural vector [nope three times over!]; some preliminary research [maybe; must sort ideas and facts first]; some preliminary marketing [maybe; must sort methods of operation].

So I’m left to wonder whether the “branding consultancy” would be producing “things” that have no legal identity — unless and until someone agrees to pay for them. That raises a practical problem: How are you going to distinguish the browsers from the buyers?

One thought on “Brand First, Then Product

  1. How can one talk about brands without talking about the social communities from which brand identities originate and are sustained? Brands are not disembodied identities; they are commodified totems of consensual social practice and belief. Economics calls this “goodwill.”

    Who owns that goodwill, and who “invented” it in the first place? These issues are not self-evident. Mattel didn’t invent Barbie; Disney didn’t invent Snow White; and the public can legitimately genericize a brand, as when Kleenex becomes kleenex and Xerox, xerox.

    It is the conceit of “branding consultants” that they invent brands (and surely they do add their share of creative consolidation). But social communities are the fundamental locus of value from which brand experts appropriate what they wish to “create” brands. The idea of “pre-formed brands” strikes me as an absurdity.

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