What Does a Brand Really Mean?


Apple - Think Different campaign - Nelson Mandela

The One Question Debates premiered in London last night with the topic ‘What does brand really mean?’ The speakers: Rebecca Robins of Interbrand, Dan Balmer of Aston Martin, Fred Bolza of Sony Music, Sarah Golding of the IPA, Shane Bellamy of the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust Enterprises and Sarah Ogden of 3Monkeys Zeno. Rebecca was invited to write a piece to help frame the debate, and shares her thoughts here:

“Here’s to the crazy ones.
The misfits.
The rebels.
The troublemakers.
The round pegs in the square holes.
The ones who see things differently.
They’re not fond of rules.
And they have no respect for the status quo.
You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.
About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.
Because they change things.
They push the human race forward.
While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.
Because the people who are crazy enough to think
they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

—Apple’s Think Different campaign, 1988.

Apple Think Different

Thirty years ago, this was the brand that invited us to “Think Different.” It was a powerful and poignant combination of what Apple was saying about its vision of humanising technology and how it was saying it that captured an audience then, and still continues to engage us now.

Think about it—“Think Different” is grammatically incorrect. This is a brand born from writing its own rules, dislocating the norms and creating its own verbal, visual and experiential lexicon. And it’s one that has gone on to see the brand hold the position of the most valuable brand in the world.

The Age of You

Four years ago, Interbrand conducted a study into The Age of You to look at how the role of brand has evolved through the history of modern branding.

In The Age of Identity, brand acted as identifier and differentiator, with brand communications primarily a one-way street.

The first pivot, however, comes as we enter The Age of Value where brands are recognised by businesses as wealth creators, where brand value is measured on balance sheets. Brand gets a seat in the boardroom.

The Age of Experience gives rise to brand as the higher purpose that inspires a connected ecosystem.

And ultimately, we arrive at The Age of You, where brand is becoming the consumer’s partner.

Brand experiences are becoming unique and highly customised to the individual and brand performance is measured in its ability to capture and leverage data and engender participation.

So, to the one question of what a brand really means, let’s consider the many roles that it assumes and can assume:

Brand as differentiator
Brand as curator
Brand as co-creator
Brand as educator
Brand as navigator
Brand as entertainer
Brand as culture
Brand as gatekeeper of access
Brand as club and community
Brand as ecosystem

The Role of Brand

The roles go on and continue to evolve. Let’s focus, for a moment, on the role of brand as gatekeeper of access and brand as club and community. Netflix was one of the new entrants on Interbrand’s Best Global Brands study last year and just broke through a few weeks ago to hit a market cap of $100bn: a powerful example of brands growing businesses based on access.

As we consider the recent news of Soho House Group’s planned IPO, the rise of the ‘club brand’ has been based on the very premise of being part of access to an insider space and community, and how they manage the demands of shareholder return, while protecting the desirability of that space and community will be telling to watch.

As we reflect on the past four decades, Interbrand has branded everything from cities and cultural destinations to game-changing mergers and acquisitions; we’ve designed currencies, valued the brands of world-renowned artists and sports stars, created experiences that have redefined categories and named brands that have entered the public vocabulary. The single, unifying red thread that runs through all of this is people. Brands are created by people, for people.

The New Renaissance

As we enter a new Renaissance, humanity and tech, art and science will need to come together as never before. And people are at the beating heart of that. Great brands begin from within. They are sustained and continue to grow through the strength of a powerful purpose and crystal clear and common culture.

What inspires me is the role of brand, and the potential of a brand, as game-changer. Think about the brands who are calling it out, who are setting new standards, who are ripping up rule books—for the good. That is the real meaning of sustainable brand value.

So, “Here’s to the rebels, to the misfits” and to the brands that have provoked us to think—and act—differently. Here’s to the brands that have yet to provoke us to think—and act—differently. Here’s to brands, and every one of the people behind them, because we have the power to change the world.

Rebecca Robins is Global Director at Interbrand, runs the Interbrand Academy and is co-author of Meta-luxury. Twitter: @robins_rebecca