Dear PR Guy:
I heard at the Communications Network conference in Philadelphia you got into it with some folks about the use of the word “branding” when it comes to foundation communications. I guess I have two questions: Are you a stuck-in-the-80s pitch-and-spin-guy who’s just not caught up with the times, or do you really think this actually matters in the day-to-day life of communicators?
Signed, Flummoxed in Philly
Back in the Old West, folks used to say, “It’s OK to call you horse a dog, but don’t get all ornery when people keep asking why your dog don’t bark” (or something like that; PR Guy vaguely recalls it from an episode of Deadwood). Language matters, and language about ideas matters the most. The problem with public interest “branding” is the simple fact that branding is actually pretty much the very opposite of what most foundations, nonprofits, political parties and the like are trying to accomplish.
Here’s why: Brands exclude. Promises invite.
The reason you used to stick a hot iron — your “brand” — on the hind quarters of some poor cow was so that people knew it was yours. And back in the day, the synergy between the quality of your cattle and the measure of your reputation pretty much told people everything they needed to know about you. Were you the rancher who had all the sickly cattle … or did people want to buy from the Lazy Bar S because they knew you were an honest broker of cows (or steers, or whatever they called them back then)?
The point is the same goes today. If it’s YOUR restaurant, YOUR toy store, YOUR cattle, YOU get to own and steward the brand however you like. You of course can’t control all the variables, but you do get to call all the shots. If it’s not yours … say if you’re a non-profit, or a political party, or a foundation … then it’s not yours, and you can’t brand it. You can closely guard its reputation; you should absolutely nurture its visual and public identity; you by all means want to create and work to maintain a personality; but you cannot brand it.
The best you can do is make a promise, and hope to live up to it.
But seriously, one may still ask, the qualities are identical so does it actually matter what we call it? PR Guy’s answer is yes, if for no other reason than this. A brand and a promise start and end in very different places — “Mine” vs. “Ours.”
Got a question? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.