What we've learned.

Brands are cultural symbols.

When you think of your company, it means something specific to you.  That interpretation in your mind is your “brand” as you know it. It’s a symbol that you use to understand and hopefully project the role your company plays in the world. 

Everyone else who thinks about your company does the same thing. They take what they see and experience and package it in their mind such that the mention of your company name or sighting of your logo evokes a specific meaning.  But that meaning in their head may be very different from that which takes form in your head.

Why? Because the meaning individuals and groups assign to people, places, things, and experiences is determined by their own experience and the story they tell themselves about how the world works. Brands are symbols and the meaning of those symbols are culturally dependent. In other words, your brand has a place in the subculture and what that place ends up being is determined by the influences of that subculture.

This is how we’ve seen brands enter and “live” in marketplaces. There are four phases:

Phase 1: “Inspiration:” – this is when you create your company, messaging, and activity. At this phase, you have your idea of what your company’s mission and place and the world is, and what you believe distinguishes you in the marketplace. You put yourself out there in the marketplace.

Phase 2: “Interpretation: “ – this is when others that make up your marketplace decide how to interpret who you are and what you mean to them.

Phase 3: “Integration:” – this is when your brand becomes a cultural symbol of some kind or does not. If it becomes a cultural symbol — that is, it has a specific meaning within the culture — then you’ll be defined by that symbol and its meaning. If your brand does not become a cultural symbol, you’re flirting with growing increasingly irrelevant to the marketplace, or at least certain segments of the marketplace. In other words, in this phase you either become integrated into and part of people’s lives to a certain degree or you don’t.

Phase 4: “Utilization:” This is the prize for marketers, leaders, and entrepreneurs. Utilization is what happens when the cultural meaning of your brand is such that others see it as a vehicle to validate and amplify their values, and they therefore invest in and promote your brand. They literally use your brand for their own purposes so become promotional agents on your behalf and form, collectively, a marketing engine that keeps churning with a life of its own.

Apple, Air Jordan, Patagonia, the NRA, the ACLU, and especially political parties and sports teams are examples of brands that are utilized by members of the marketplace expressly because the symbolic power of these brands help the individual to assert cultural influence in a way that would be difficult as an individual. There’s also the aspect of quality by association, as in when you hire or partner with “best of breed companies.” Whether is still true or not, there once was an expression that “no one got fired by hiring IBM.”  At that time, IBM’s brand was blue chip — if you hired them, by implication you must be blue chip.

Brands are considered cultural symbols if they become integrated to some degree into the culture of the marketplace. This implies that those organizations that are attuned to the culture of the marketplace, and the narrative that the culture creates in its members, will be at an advantage when it comes to positioning their brands and remaining relevant.