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Branding Down the House

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

Brand frameworks, like recipes, can be problematic. They give the illusion that if you simply assemble the noted ingredients in one place, you're cooking (i.e., creating a brand). This is worrisome, at best. Look, if you're going to step into the kitchen with a frame or a recipe, it's important to understand more than just what the ingredients are. That’s ground-floor. Before the oven pops on, you better have a basic idea of how the ingredients work together. And why they work that way.

Pretty photo by: Max Delsid via Unsplash

By omitting the relational chemistry of brand elements, one can throw all sorts of crap into a given framework and not end up with an actionable brand. The paper you've assembled it on doesn't burst into flames. (Though imagine how wonderful that would be…)

Sans combustion, this can cause issues for the individual trying to do the Thing. Because the brand is a tool. And tools need to perform.

But these issues grow exponentially, in that, sans combustion (consequence...accountability), this mistaken belief perpetuates easily in our hyper-meta-surface-knowing digital environment. So, you may not be the original holder of the “recipe.” But you got yours from a guy who got his from a gal whose boss did it once and just said that’s how it should go.

So, how do we avoid this with branding and frameworks?

At the risk of our cooking metaphor imploding, let’s linger a moment longer on the idea of a recipe. Recipes have the advantage over conceptual frameworks in that salt, flour, acid, and heat are tangible things. Over-salt a dish and you'll know it. (We hope.) If your batter doesn't result in fluffy, magical pancakes, your kids and/or spouse will let you know it. (#SadDadBrunch)

Slightly unsettling photo by: Marcos Paulo Prado via Unsplash

That said, selecting a frame for branding that you can tangibly understand is important. And, fortunately, there's only about an infinite amount of brand frameworks and points of view available online. (At the time of this writing, Googling “brand framework template” returns 88,800,000 results.) I'm sure every one of them is well thought out, carefully explained, and backed by data and goodwill.

But let's stick with one of the legends. Branding via the framework of a house.

(That alone narrows us down to a mere 11,200,000 results. You're welcome.)

In short, think of a brand as a house. You can even shape your brand template like a house. The parts of the brand are the rooms and, together, they make a house a house. Note: This is different from a house of brands...which we’re not touching today. Or, perhaps, ever.

Even so expertly defined, the metaphor doesn’t ensure the efficacy of its frame. Through a few of my solid tours in ad making, I was led to believe that the elements of a good brand could and should take the form of a house. Great! How clear and simple.

What’s more, when this framework would be introduced, everyone around the table would nod in agreement. Houses are a thing in the world with which most of us have had some experience. So, the logic to this point seemed sound.

But sooner or later, things would all go to shit. At some point in the process, somewhere between understanding what a house is and assembling the elements of a business into the conceptual version of what one was, things would go off the rails, more or less spectacularly.

In my humble experience, most disagreements (read: fights) would be over the "roof."

(Note: The following has been generalized and edited for time.)

MAN: "Our tagline needs to be at the top. People like our tagline."

WOMAN: "Then where does the mission statement go, Jerry? And I think the marketing team really needs to be in this conversation."

JERRY: "We haven't even tested the tagline in the market yet."

WOMAN: "Right, I, yes, I am hearing you. But Shannon spent the last 6 months selling that up to Tom."

JERRY: "But it isn't in market yet."

WOMAN: "If she's bounced it off Tom it might as well be..."

OTHER MAN WHO'S BEEN THERE THE WHOLE TIME: "Guys, Shannon just IM-ed me back. She can hop on the call here in 20 minutes..."

ME: Hey, you (pssst) let’s take a little walk for a minute:

When I was a kid I had an old school dentist (orthodontist?). And I say "old school" because he was rough and mean and didn't seem to care if he hurt you. So, I would start to practice a game where, when having to sit in the chair having my industrial-strength braces tightened, I forced myself to think of the fact that, no matter how much the work hurt or how much I wanted to cry, it would all be over at some point. And I'd try to just rest my mind on the comfort of that eventuality.

And, while this mental exercise never quite saved me in the dentist chair, the practice came very much in handy while sitting in conference rooms with people arguing about brand "roofs." That, and the promise of being able to expense a few martinis at the end of the day.

At some point, bracing through all this pain, what I eventually realized was that the value of the house is not as a metaphor, as I'd been taught.

The value is in viewing the branding process as the construction of a functional structure through the logical assembly of available elements.

Legos are stacked. But houses are built. And if you want to use this particular framework to build a brand, you first need to understand how the functional structures we call houses work.

We'll touch on that in a fast-follow Part 2!

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