Eeek! Brand is everywhere

Great thoughts from William Safire of the New York Times on the overuse, misuse and abuse of the word "brand."

Source: New York Times article, Brand by William Safire


Published: April 10, 2005

hen the New Yorker reporter Jeffrey Goldberg asked Senator John Kerry whether the Democrats had a credibility problem on defense controversies, the party's titular leader replied without equivocation, ''Look, the answer is, we have to do an unbranding.'' As Kerry saw it, the political problem had to do with salesmanship: ''We have to brand more effectively. It's marketing.'' An editor on the linguistic qui vive titled Goldberg's article about the Democrats' need to shuck off the appearance of weakness ''The Unbranding.''

The hot word in the field of sales -- indeed, pervading the world of perfect pitching -- is brand.

''The King Is Dead, Long Live His Brand'' is the Times headline above an article about the way ''Michael Jordan is being mortalized so his sneakers can stay in the game.'' That's because ''building a brand on the back of a legend works only until that back breaks.''

The noun blazed on the scene a thousand years ago as a burning stick, and the meaning soon transferred to the mark left on the skin of a horse or a criminal by such a stick, or branding iron. That mark became the sign of infamy: Richard Hooker wrote in 1597 of an age marked ''with the brand of error and superstition,'' and later, a firebrand became the symbol of an inflammatory rabble-rouser.

The burned-in mark, in the 19th century, began to signify ownership not just of an animal but also of liquids in wooden casks, like wine or ale. The brand-mark became a ''trademark,'' and in the 20th century the designated item so labeled became a brand. In 1929, Fleischmann's Yeast absorbed the coffee maker Chase & Sanborn and other companies to form Standard Brands (now a part of Kraft), in hopes that brand names would produce brand loyalty. A generation later, David Ogilvy, the advertising executive, was dubbed by the author Martin Mayer in 1958 as an ''apostle of the 'brand image''' who sought to persuade the consumer ''that brand A, technically identical with brand B, is somehow a better product.'' Within two years, the novelist Kingsley Amis extended brand image from a product to a genre: ''mad scientists attended by scantily clad daughters'' constitute ''the main brand-image of science fiction.''

As the millennium ended, consumers wanted to become closely associated with famous names. Alex Frankel, author of ''Wordcraft,'' a book about the origins of brand names, says, ''We used to buy a well-crafted pair of shoes; now we buy a pair of Nikes because we like what they're associated with -- Michael Jordan and 'Just Do It.''' In the same way, Evan Morris, author of ''From Altoids to Zima,'' points to the creation of a product-line atmosphere: ''Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren both strike me as innovators in the reassertion of the personal name as a brand with a well-known 'general character' that gives consumers some idea of what tone their product, be it dress shirts, luggage or perfume, is likely to project (hyper-WASP, in both cases).''

At first, most of us attributed that parading of labels to snob appeal, or derogated it as a need by vacuous, lemminglike buyers to find a spurious identity in some highfalutin or jazzy product line. But an alternative, libertarian view of the branding phenomenon was soon presented: ''It's a new brand world,'' wrote Tom Peters in the magazine Fast Company in 1997, playing on the compound adjective brand-new. In an article titled ''The Brand Called You,'' Peters argued that ''the main chance is becoming a free agent in an economy of free agents . . . looking to establish your own microequivalent of the Nike swoosh. Everyone has a chance to be a brand worthy of remark.''

Well before the blogosphere became a media power, Peters held that ''the Web makes the case for branding more directly than any packaged good or consumer product ever could. . . . So how do you know which sites are worth visiting? The answer: branding. The sites you go back to are the sites you trust. . . . The brand is a promise of the value you'll receive.'' His article helped project a new sense of the word into common usage, as he suggested ways for individuals to self-brand by focusing on the values (of imagination or budgetary dependability, of creative talent or personal charm) that make an individual's brand unique.

We now have a Brandweek magazine, and a Web site aimed at what used to be called ''Madison Avenue'' named Brand Republic. Basketball teams, rock bands and celebrities rise and fall as brands. Business Week headlines a story about Yahoo's attempt to establish itself in foreign markets with ''Exporting an ´┐Żber-Brand.''

In a world where the words new and fresh are relentlessly repeated on every product label, the name of the sales technique is getting old and stale. Where is the ad-´┐Żbermensch, the creative Ogilvy, who will put forward a new moniker for the name of the atmospheric marketing game? The time has come, as John Kerry puts it, to unbrand the word brand.


The typography forced on us by some brand names bothers me. Yahoo!, its name taken from Jonathan Swift's 1726 race of brutes, inveigles anyone who writes about the company to express the enthusiasm required by the built-in exclamation point. Why should we meekly go along with that advertising stunt? Henceforth, in protest, I will refer to that ''little search engine that could'' with different punctuation: Yahoo?

BlackBerry, appropriating the name of the fruit of a bramble bush, sports what is called ''internal capitalization'' to make the brand name distinctive. That's the next worst thing in corporate nomenclature, stemming like kudzu from the 1951 TelePrompTer. Entranced by the symmetry of two five-letter groups beginning with b, the corporate namers capitalized both, turning a proper noun improper, at least in my book.

What reason do I have to resist this sly typographic mind-manipulation? As Shakespeare put it in ''Henry IV, Part I'': ''If reasons were as plenty as Black-berries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion.'' (The Bard wrote the word as ''Black-berries,'' with initial cap and hyphen. Four centuries ago, that was O.K.)

Send comments and suggestions to: