In order to retain credibility, branding needs ethics at its heart

Branding as we know it today is dying. These aren’t just whispers from the fringe but discussions in mainstream journals ranging from Wired Magazine to the Harvard Business Review. And though they all agree that it doesn’t work anymore, what they disagree on is the solution, with options ranging from customer experience to brand ambassadorship to micro-branding to, of course, sustainability. But these all fail to strike at the root of the problem.

Identity without behaviour

The problem is that branding as a concept is inherently flawed. It was a cosmetic exercise that arose in the advertising age. But now the internet has flooded the world with glossy, meaningless brands and it’s often difficult to tell whether that sleek website belongs to a brick-and-mortar company or a kid sitting in his mother’s spare bedroom. What’s more, branding is now so profuse that it has actually hit pop culture and even individuals are talking about building their own ‘personal brand’.

Go back a hundred years ago or so and companies didn’t talk about branding. They didn’t even have branding departments. Instead, they talked about their values and ideals. The brand was the name they built for themselves by their hard earned reputation. But with the advertising age identity was detached from behaviour and reputation, and instead became about image.

The Greeks, who spent considerable time contemplating identity, would have been appalled at the thought of uncoupling these two. They believed that one’s identity was actually defined by one's behaviour. As a matter of fact, the Greek word for character was ethos which expressed the ’spirit’ or nature of something. Ethos was a military term that literally meant ‘the place of habit’ and referred to the stables where, by habit, they trained horses for war.

Ethics without purpose

The other shock to the Greeks would be our common view of ethics as merely a determination of wrong from right. For them, ethics was about cultivating one's ideals into a positive and fruitful reality. In other words, ethics was about how to live life to its fullest potential. If the ancient Greeks ran corporations today they would have a chief philosopher sitting at the boardroom table advising on how to strategically guide the corporation toward greater health and well-being.

The problem is that our disunified approach to identity leaves us with organisations that are schizophrenic, split between crafting grand appearances on one hand and self-defeating behaviour on the other. They define their image in the marketing department where it is merely seen as an instrument of growth, and they monitor their behaviour in the legal department just to ensure they don’t get into trouble. Of course ethics has gained more credence lately under the guise of social responsibility, but it still remains on the fringe in most companies and doesn’t get close enough to the heart to really affect behaviour.

Is it time to ‘rebrand’ branding?

For branding to work again it needs to evolve into a more unified approach that remarries image and behaviour so that it shapes the entire DNA of an organisation and truly brings the ideals and aspirations to life. In other words, what we do needs to match what we say.

Visit any Disney theme park or the headquarters of Pixar and you will find companies that live and breathe their brand. For them, the brand is not merely a means of promotion, it’s an entire way of life. Nearly every aspect of their corporate culture has been shaped and guided by their ideals. When you enter a disney park, every little detail, literally every Mickey-eared cornice, every cast member's ‘have a magical day’ and every hidden film or historical reference point to an organisation that is not just building ‘an experience’ they are the living embodiment their ideals.

What makes iconic brands so truly iconic is their absolute passion for their brand as a way of life. I call this approach ‘brand religion’. I don’t use religion here in any spiritual sense, but rather in how religions create a way of life by giving us shared stories, values, symbols, codes and rituals.

Furthermore, iconic brands often have a religious effect on their customers, and some even blatantly borrow from religion. Apple purposefully designs its stores to look like cathedrals to inspire awe in their customers and a study conducted by the BBC found that customers showed the same response when viewing images of an Apple product, as when viewing images of a deity. It’s no joke when they call it a cult following: for the people that work at these companies and the customers who buy their products, the brand is a religion.

‘Branding’ alone cannot produce this kind of passion. You have to care deeply about your identity to invest the time and money to craft the painstaking details that bring the brand to life. But even if you aren’t quite driven to the level of Disney-passion, these same ideas can still dramatically transform your work environment from a lifeless machine to a burgeoning community.

But doing this requires an organisational change. No longer can the invention of image and the management of behaviour sit in disparate departments. They need to work as a whole and to do that they need people who see the big picture from end to end.

The answer we have been looking for

The solution, therefore, is to bring the gurus of branding and ethics into one team to ensure that the brand’s story and ideals are continuously developed, communicated and, most importantly, realised.

Often organisations fail to challenge their ideals and fall into a rut of creativity. This is why Disney had to acquire Pixar. They had stopped cultivating their values after Walt’s passing and Pixar were actually living Disney values better than Disney.

The aim of a holistic identity department would be to counter this atrophy and challenge the company to find new ways of expressing its ideals, ways that help it to stay at the forefront of its markets. As an example I often suggest that if Microsoft developed office furniture, no one would be interested. But if Apple designed office furniture we would all be intrigued and some of us even euphoric. This is because Apple’s deep investment in its values has produced such a radical way of engaging with the world that they can move into virtually any crowded market space and lead radical change. That is the power of ethos!

The key benefits of this approach:

Branding becomes more about education and less about sales

With branding detached from the marketing department, it shifts its focus from merely trying to create ‘brand awareness' to building a culture that is rich with the brand’s ideals so that it shapes and inspires every decision. Coincidently, Steve Jobs hated the term branding because he felt that it should be about informing customers not convincing them.

Brand ideals become less ethereal and more practical

Often companies develop values statements that have little practical connection to the world the brand inhabits. They are what I call ‘boardroom values’ because they look nice on a boardroom plaque, but don’t actually impact the real decision making in the organisation. But with a holistic approach to identity the brand’s values will by necessity become more practical and meaningful.

Social responsibility comes to the heart of the organisation

When behaviour becomes central to the corporate identity, it ceases to be a fringe exercise and instead moves to the heart of the organisation. The brand's assets (it’s logo, strap lines, and other intellectual property) would become the responsibility of the identity department, allowing them to safeguard their usage to protect its identity.

Ethics becomes a positive conversation

Ethics becomes an opportunity for companies to dramatically differentiate themselves. Brands like Wholefoods have shown us that not only is this possible, it’s highly effective. This doesn't eliminate the discussion of responsibility, it adds to it. Put another way, you can try and quit smoking because you don’t want lung cancer, or you can do it because you want to climb Everest. Purpose is much more motivating than pain.

Staff engagement becomes stronger

Deepening your understanding of 'why you matter’ helps your employees understand why they matter. Disney staff aren’t merely hired hands filling drinks, monitoring queues and sweeping streets, they are all ‘actors’ working to bring the brand experience to life for every customer. And every customer matters because they aren’t just paying wage bills, they are eager participants in the brand’s grand performance.


Of course none of this offers a cast-iron guarantee that a company will become truly ethical. Abuse of this is not just a possibility; it's a strong likelihood. But it does give us an opportunity to lead the most pressing business conversation today by offering the win-win that CEOs have been looking for: ‘how do I succeed not just in spite of, but rather because of my humanity?'

Josh Jost is an advisor to corporate, startup and 3rd sector organisations on ethos and identity. Read more at or follow him on Twitter @joshuajost.

brand identity  ethical brand identity  ethical branding 

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