Brand onions: The crying game



I’ve complained about them before. But it felt time for a slightly more considered examination of the brand-as-shape phenomenon. Because they're dangerous. For despite their popularity in business schools, marketing courses, and the hallways of marketingland, they fail to accurately represent the brand, perpetuate false myths about the human mind, and fail to inspire and guide.

Failing as a memory palace

Is the brand-as-shape meant to be an accurate representation of the brand, its meanings and satisfactions in the mind of the consumer? If so, it’s woefully inadequate record of memory.

For if making brands ‘mentally available’ (i.e. easily recalled in consumption and purchase situations) is dependent on the quantity and accessibility of associations in the mind, then the brand-as-shape is so horribly underpopulated in memories it feels positively anorexic. Many brands-as-shapes fail to capture the sensory dimensions of a brand. Dismissed as ‘communications’ and not 'part of the brand', they tend to ignore the unique advertising properties successful brands have built up over time. And they certainly don’t capture the myriad of very personal memories many brands are connected with.

But the inadequacy of the brand-as-shape goes further. The brand-as-shape perpetuates assumptions about human nature that are not only fundamentally wrong, but get in the way of effective creativity.

Perpetuating the myth of the split brain

It would seem there’s not an onion, pyramid or temple that doesn’t split out ‘rational’ or 'functional' benefits from ‘emotional’ benefits. Needless to say, it’s nonsense.

We have of course long been accustomed to think of reason and emotion as being in conflict with one another, which is why this separation seems so plausible and few ever question it.

Plato started it, characterizing the mind as a chariot pulled by two horses - one well-bred the other obstinate - with the rational brain acting as charioteer, holding the reins and keeping the horses in check and on course.

And later we had Freud arguing that the mind was locked in perpetual conflict between the primitive id and the conscious and reasoning ego. And of course the popular notion of a brain ‘divided’ into separately functioning left and right sides endures still in our collective consciousness.

But this delineation is unfounded.

The work of the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman for example, demonstrates how our unconscious, impressionistic, intuitive emotional system of thinking (System 1) provides System 2 with the raw material to turn into beliefs and actions. The two systems of thinking are not separate. They work and interact together and are physically bound up with one another.

Dividing the ‘emotional’ and ‘functional’ dimensions of a brand into separate boxes fundamentally misrepresents how human beings think and make sense of the world. Including brands.

Peddling the myth that the mind ‘ladders up’ to the emotions

This division between a brand's rational and functional components encourages the belief that brands are built up from rational experiences and evaluations that then (somehow, perhaps magically) ‘ladder’ up to ‘emotional benefits’. Again the paraphernalia of brand management misrepresents the workings of the human mind.

As Kahneman’s work shows, System 1 - intuitive, emotional, sub-conscious, judgmental - is an always-on system of thinking. And it is this system that filters the world for us. In other words, feelings and emotions come first. They are not ‘laddered’ up to. Conclusions, beliefs and actions come second.

It’s worth turning to the field of politics to get some much-needed perspective. Here, the clinical psychologist and political strategist Drew Westen rejects the notion that voters begin their decision-making process by evaluating policy positions, with the results of these gradually ‘trickling’ up into voting.

The trickle-up process simply does not exist, he argues:

Voters tend to ask four questions that determine who they will vote for, which provide a hierarchy of influence on their decisions about whether and how to vote: How do I feel about the individual’s party and its principles? How does this candidate make me feel? How do I feel about their candidates’ personal characteristics...? And “how do I feel about this candidate’s stand on issues that matter to me? Candidates who focus their campaigns towards the top of this hierarchy and work their way down generally win.

Similarly, the cognitive linguist Professor George Lakoff has argued that:

First, voters mostly vote not on the details of positions on issues, but on five aspects of what might be called "character"... They are Values (What are the ethical principles that form the basis of your politics?); Authenticity (Do you say what you believe?); Communication (Do you connect with voters and inspire them?); Judgment; Trust; and Identity (If you share voters' values, connect with them, tell them the truth effectively while inspiring trust, then they will identify with you -- and they will vote for you). Positions on issues matter when they come to stand symbolically for values.

Our first response then to the world’s stimulus and events is as Kahneman has demonstrated, not dispassionate, conscious and reasoned.  We begin with feelings, hunches, intuitions and judgements. Only then do we get to beliefs and voluntary actions. Even those their unconscious origins are largely invisible to us. Our rationale side is the last to engage.

Failing to guide and inspire

There is undoubted value in pointing brand activity in the same direction. After all, if a key part of the game of branding is to build and refresh memory structures,  it helps to have a means of ensuring that everyone - both internally and externally - is on the same page and that a brand’s output is coherent. But the fact of the matter is that as an internal tool for stimulating and inspiring ideas and action, the brand-as-shape is woefully inadequate.

It’s inadequate because in prizing order and logic, it unwittingly fights the very nature of brands, consumer decision-making, and the needs of creativity. As Heath and Feldwick have noted:

Organizations tend to work on the basis of argument, analysis, measurement and factual proof (however illusory the practice of these may be). Within certain limits, such cultures can be highly effective in making the right decisions and efficient in implementing them. However, they can be very badly adapted to dealing with creative processes, with emotional decisions, or in general with anything that cannot explicitly be verbalized and/or measured. This has always created a tension in the creation and judgement of advertising, familiar to anyone who has ever been involved in the process: a contest if you like between intuitive judgement and the organizational need for measurement and logic.

Of course these kinds of models are attractive. As Heath and Feldwick note they reduce the chaotic and intuitive into something that can “can be pinned down in words, analysed with logic, and measured. It does this by projecting on to the consumer's choice behaviour the same sort of rational, fact-based approach that is recognized and valued in the organization.”

Both Westen and Lakoff identify identify the same similar historic failing of the Democrats. Namely that they try and logic people into voting for them, bogging them down in the minutiae and argument of policy detail. Lakoff’s diagnosis for this  has more than a little relevance for parts of marketingland:

When democratic political leaders go to college they tend to study things like political science, economics, law, and public policy. These fields tend to use a scientifically false theory of human reason -- Enlightenment reason. It posits that reason is conscious, that it can fit the world directly, that it is logical (in the sense of mathematical logic), that emotion gets in the way of reason, that reason is there to serve self-interest, and that language is neutral and applies directly to the world. The brain and cognitive sciences have shown that every part of this is false.

Their background and view of the world effectively blinded the Democrats to the fundamentals of human nature, rendering them unable to create a powerful emotional connection with the electorate. Unlike the Republicans who intuitively understood that reason, as the eighteenth century philosopher David Hume declared, is a slave to emotion.

If you want to move people's behaviours, then you have to move them emotionally. So while the process of auditing and categorizing the elements of a brand might provide a sense of order, control, and rationality, what this brand-as-shape approach yields is something that not only fails to reflect the world, but is largely incapable of inspiring action.

Over-valuing defining and fixing

In world characterized by flux and speed, the brand-as-shape approach prizes the fixing of things. And the fixing of things in words. 

It treats the brand as an object, rather the consequence of behaviours, choices and actions.

As a consequence organizations find themselves spending precious time and resources fiddling with the nuance of minutiae of language. It’s an approach that values getting to answers through words rather than action.  And it’s certainly a world away from the agile marketing, the learning through doing, and the iterating that characterizes the next (non-legacy) generation of businesses.

A better way

Employees and agency partners alike need to know what their purpose is. But because it so fundamentally misreads the truth of the human mind, the brand-as-shape with its lists and diagrams fails to help anyone easily, intuitively and memorably grasp what your brand is all about.  After all, who can accurately reproduce a brand’s onion/temple/pyramid from memory?

And because it is borne of an effort to control, rationalize and systematize, it is fundamentally ill-equipped to inspire and guide action. Who has ever been on the receiving end of a brand’s onion/temple/pyramid and had their mind thrill, hum and whirr with inspiration and ideas?

The brand-as-shape fails because people (employees, agency partners, and people in the outside world) don’t consume and make sense of the world through lists and diagrams. They make sense of facts through the lens of narrative.

Westen’s prescription for the Democrats applies not just to aspiring presidents, but for anybody wanting to elect a brand in the minds of people. And it is a simple one. Provide your constituencies with a simple, emotionally compelling story about what you believe in that provides the structure, coherence and causality our minds search for.

As he notes, “attorneys who present their cases using the story structure our brains search for have an easier time convincing juries than those who present even highly compelling evidence without an obvious storyline to pull it all together.”

His articulation of what constitutes a compelling political narrative contains invaluable guidance for us all in marketingland:

It should have the structure our brains expect of a narrative so that it can be readily understood, told, and retold.

It should have protagonists and antagonists, defining both what the party or candidate stands for and what the party cannot stand...

It should be coherent, requiring few leaps of inference or imagination to make its plot line move forwards or the intentions of its actors clear.

It should have a clear moral.

It should be vivid and memorable.

It should be moving...

... it should be a story its framers would want to tell their children... because it should be so clear, compelling, and central to its members understanding of right and wrong that they would want their children to internalize the values it embodies.

So if we really want to move and inspire an organization (the minds of employees are after all no different from those of the rest of humanity), if you want to manage a brand’s actions and outputs so that they form a coherent picture in people’s minds, then define what your story is.

If this hasn’t convinced you of the inadequacy and redundancy of the shapes-and-lists-approach to managing brands consider this. Despite the size and complexity of the organization, there is no Nike onion, key, doughnut, pyramid, house, temple, or shape of any kind whatsoever. That should give pause for thought to anybody would would advocate brand bureaucracy as a necessary solution to having to manage large organizations. 

Your organization might have a brand manual. They have a running track at the center of their campus. Nike behaves exactly like an emotionally intelligent presidential candidate. It has a simple belief that shapes every action, every statement, every choice. One that allows it to be adaptable and agile. One that demands dynamism, innovation and action. The belief that there’s an athlete inside every body.

If there’s one thing you will not be doing at Nike, it’s polishing a brand onion. But you will be inspiring action. And be continually inspired to act.

So to all those wanting to inspire organizations yet enamored with their brand onions, temples, pyramids and the paraphernalia of brand bureaucracy :

Don’t believe what you’re taught in business school and accept that the world cannot be reduced to a geometric shape on a Powerpoint slide.

Update your model of how the human mind works. It’s out of date.

Recognize that your organization’s desire for rationality and order is at odds with human nature. And with creativity.

Accommodate yourself to the fact that the brand-as-shape is not a mirror of what is in the mind of your constituencies.

Don’t try and reason people into believing. You will fail.

So put aside this lot...

brand as shape.001

brand as shape.001

and find your story.


Robert Heath & Paul Feldwick, '50 Years Of Using The Wrong Model Of Advertising', International Journal of Market Research, Vol. 50, No. 1, 2008

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Georges Lakoff, ‘The Mind and the Obama Magic’, at

Georges Lakoff, 'Untellable Truths', at

Daniel Westen, The Political Brain: The Role Of Emotion In Deciding The Fate Of The Nation