The Garrulous Jay – Brand And Deliver

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The concept of branding is nothing new, but when we talk about it today the etymology of the word is often overlooked. Might this have lessons for businesses in general and service companies in particular?

The word ‘brand’ comes from the Old Norse ‘brandr’, or the Middle English word ‘brond’, which mean to burn (source: The Hot History & Cold Future of Brands, Kahn & Mufti & Wikipedia), and the act of branding – or burning a mark onto the skin of animals to signify quality or ownership – goes back at least as far as 2700 BC when it was used by the ancient Egyptians.

From its origins in livestock, the practice of attaching distinctive marks to items such as pottery and jewellery spread in the centuries that followed, until what we think of as branding today emerged in the late nineteenth century.

Guinness World Records cites the Lyle’s Golden Syrup tin, pretty much unchanged since 1885, as the world’s oldest branding and packaging, although the red triangle had been adopted by Bass Brewers some decades earlier.

This is all well and good for companies that manufacture and sell a distinctive tangible product, but things are a little trickier for service companies… You cannot pick a bank account off the shelves of a supermarket, put a well-prepared tax return on a garage forecourt or wear an insurance policy like a pair of jeans.

Whilst this intangibility may increase the need for a powerful brand, it also makes it harder to achieve.

As a result many service companies, and particularly larger organisations, seem to resort to competing on price whilst relegating branding to the most superficial (but expensive) of exercises in logos, literature and sponsorships.

In today’s world of automation, chatbots and online everything, it should be remembered that at critical points in the client relationship the interaction between people still defines the quality of the service an organisation delivers.

To that extent the business’s brand is its people.

Where roles and functions can effectively be replaced by automation that’s fine, but the risk is companies use this to deskill their customer-facing staff, when the opposite should actually be the case, and to cut their numbers too far.

I don’t call my bank to transfer funds or check my balance, for example, I do it when I have a problem or a more complex question. What I don’t then need is ten minutes of “unusually high call volumes” and Greensleeves, followed by someone putting me through to someone else.

I would actually go one step further, however. For successful service companies the brand is manifest not just in their staff, but in their clients too.

If a company’s product is the service it provides then the power of personal recommendation becomes paramount. And when a client makes a recommendation to somebody else surely the first question that individual will implicitly ask is, “Do I trust this person’s judgement?”

For today’s service industries, brands that are only skin deep are no longer likely to enjoy long-term success.