Questions (for you)

5 basic assumptions about the nature of ‘brand’ – but what’s the smell of the sea?


Either I’ve spotted an untapped opportunity in Brand Theory, or I’ve missed something truly fundamental. So please, get a debate raging and prove the point one way or the other…

Let me start by making five basic assumptions about what a ‘brand’ is:

1) A ‘brand’ is a singular entity. While a ‘brand’ may be multi-faceted, at its core is a singular offering
2) A ‘brand’ is a mental construct formed by and held within the mind of the consumer
3) The mental construct of a ‘brand’ is formed by all of the interactions that a consumer has with that ‘brand’ – including (but not limited to) visual, auditory, experiential, emotional, cognitive
4) A ‘brand’ can be a product (phone), service (consultancy) or conceptual construct (religion – although one can argue that religion is an over mask for the product of church services, counsel, shared experience etc)
5) A ‘brand’ offering includes a future promise to the consumer, based on the mental construct already formed. Thus I will expect good things from a company whose ethics I admire, who’ve got a snazzy core design principle and from whom I’ve had good service in the past.

(Note: It’s possible at this point to get into cognitive consonance and other psychological models, but that’s likely to over-complicate matters even further)

So what on earth is the smell of the sea?

Let’s go back over the five basic assumptions, using Google as an example:

1) Google is a technological enabler. All the cool stuff they do is based on the principle of helping me make my life easier through technology. They don’t, for example, make shoes or fish food (we’re not in The Grid yet)
2) I have an construct of Google the brand in my head. It’s fast, efficient, useful and playful
3) Interactions: I see their homepage, I use my hands to type into their search box, I’m pleased when I get the results that I’m looking for
4) Google is a product and a service
5) Based on my interactions with Google (Android OS, Search, iGoogle etc), I have distinct expectations of the brand when using any of their services.

Now let’s re-run those assumptions using the smell of the sea:

1) The smell of the sea is very distinct. The salt tang. The ozone. The slight whiff of fish. There is nothing quite like it (it’s a singular entity)
2) I know that my ‘smell of the sea’ is probably different to the next person’s because we’ve all got slightly different amounts of receptors etc. But it means something to me which is might not mean to someone else, especially if they’re afraid of water
3) When I swim in the sea, or walk beside it, I’m surrounded by the tang, the sound of the waves, the taste, the calming influence and so on
4) The smell of the sea is a product of the sea and all its myriad chemicals
5) The smell of the sea might mean that I’m nearly home. Or that it’s somewhere to go for a dip on a hot day. Or somewhere to sit beside for hours contemplating the meaning of life.

So, assuming that my five initial assumptions are correct, is the smell of the sea a brand?

My brain’s at breaking point with this one. The deeper I delve, the more intricate the web becomes.

But the original point of a traditional ‘brand’ was (and is) to signpost product.

Quoting Seth Godin:

A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.

You could quite happily use Seth’s definition of a ‘brand’ to mean the smell of the sea – or hunger (the last part of the sentence could be the choice to go to the sea or go away from it; to eat or starve yourself on a diet).

However, if all brands signpost product, how deep do we need to go in order to create product? ‘The seaside’ could a brand all of its own (using my five assumptions), of which ‘the smell of the sea’ is a product and part. But ‘the smell of the sea’ could also be a distinct brand under the five assumptions above…

It’s no wonder my brain hurts.

Over to you. Are my five assumptions right? Do my two listed examples scan?

Is the smell of the sea a brand or not? And, if it is a brand, what does that mean for the future of branding? Debate, rage, take part, make art, get involved – there’s something in this, I can feel it…

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