The Other Thing

Much is made today of “Branding.” Institutions, organizations, businesses and philanthropic operations are all instructed on the significance of defining and enhancing their brand.

College credit is assigned to students who successfully complete courses in branding. There, they learn about self-branding and making themselves a brand. Which, of course, is a subject we’re desperately short on: talking about oneself.

Extracurricular workshops, facilitated by self-described experts, introduce, explain, and guide participants toward ever-enhanced brand status. Often these follow the cookbook method of instruction: a teaspoon of this, a dash of that, mix ‘em both together, call me in the morning.

At the workshop’s conclusion, presumably, marketplace nirvana is achievable as a predictable outcome of workshop enrollment. And, if it isn’t, well, then, maybe it just wasn’t the student’s “day.”

An excuse is always at hand. Even if responsibility remains slippery.

The metaphor for branding is well understood, even if its origins aren’t. Hardly a 21st century invention, branding simplified matters of ownership: my cow, not yours. Because, one supposes, either they all look alike or descriptive discrimination is a chore.

Today’s lessons in branding assume a unidirectional process with a predetermined outcome. Information about brand flows from a Source (the business, college, etc.) to the Other (customers, prospective students) and yields positive Response (purchase, enrollment).

Simple, right? And easy. Not to mention quick. Another notch marking yet another achievement on a long list.

As an example, one local TV news broadcaster labels (brands) themselves as “Team Trust.” It says so, in the upper-left-hand corner of the screen throughout the duration of their newscast. As well as on the banner constantly running across the bottom of the screen.

“Team Trust.” You (viewers) can trust this team. They are trustworthy. Good qualities for a news operation, to be sure.

But this isn’t branding. It’s bragging.

They tell you that they’re trustworthy.

Is that how “trust” is understood? Someone has to let you know this?

Or, as message recipients, is it we who assign them our notion of trust?

In communication (no “s” at the end), at least since Aristotle’s time, we’ve long known that speakers have intentions but listeners determine meaning.

The process, in other words, is not unidirectional. And, in fact, it is fluid and mutually influential. But, ultimately, the verdict lies with the recipients, not senders.

Branding occurs when TV news audiences assign the broadcaster the virtuous quality of their trust. Not when the broadcaster makes the assertion.

There’s branding. And there’s bragging.

And there’s only one president at a time.

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