Ulster Business School

Ulster Business School Masterclass

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Outstanding Branding

Whenever he was asked to explain the secrets of his brilliantly successful brand, Walt Disney used to go ballistic. But not because he possessed a secret formula that had to be kept hidden, like KFC’s or Coca-Cola’s. He went bananas because he hated the word ‘brand’. ‘Branding is for cattle,’ Walt used to snarl. ‘Disney doesn’t do branding. Disney tells stories and sells the tie-in merchandise.’

If Walt were alive today – and he may well be, if those cryogenic rumours are true – he’d have steam coming out of his ears. Because branding is everywhere. Forty years ago, the b-word was pretty much confined to fast moving consumer goods, as well as decidedly deluxe brands like Rolls-Royce and Rolex. These days, the branding concept has been embraced by just about everyone: politicians, religious leaders, utility companies, art galleries, government departments, educational institutions, charitable organisations, reality television personalities and a plethora of professional service providers from accountants to zoologists.

The burgeoning of branding is a boon for those who sell ancillary services, such as advertising agencies, graphic designers and brand naming consultancies. But there’s a down side to it too.  Branding is its own worst enemy. When everyone implements the principles of branding, and brands their products according to accepted textbook precepts, they become ever-more indistinguishable. The very thing that branding is supposed to do – help companies stand out from the crowd – is being cancelled out and compromised.  Branding is becoming a commodity, just like today’s identikit poundshops, price comparison websites, payday loan companies and online betting operations.

Accordingly, the search is on for a new secret sauce, a game-changing idea that’ll reinvigorate branding going forward. One of the strongest contenders is storytelling. There’s a growing consensus that brands are narratives and that you must tell a tale to make the sale. The remarkable stories of Apple computers or Innocent drinks or James Dyson’s struggles or Coco Chanel’s chicanery or Richard Branson’s daredevilry are integral to the mystique, the magic that surrounds their outstanding brands. Meanwhile Walt is spinning in his barometric casket wondering what just happened.

This narrative imperative might seem like a godsend for Irish goods and services. When it comes to storytelling, few countries come better equipped with literary artillery than ourselves alone. Yet, with the possible exception of Guinness and U2 – and Black Bush at a push – Irish brands appear incapable of concocting compelling narratives. Mind you, when you bear in mind how few of our companies have a professional poet or novelist or playwright on permanent retainer, perhaps that isn’t so surprising.

Our greatest commercial resource – storytelling – remains inexcusably untapped.  Our greatest economic need, strong, self-sufficient, locally-grown brands, is languishing for lack of narration. If outstanding branding is our aim, it’s time we started fracking our accumulated cultural sediments. As Seamus Heaney, the son of a canny cattle dealer, almost said: Her scarf à la Switzers/In Dunnes flats for the walk/She came with me one evening/For C&C and friendly talk…


The content of this article is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute professional or other advice.

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