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28 Jun

On Headless Brands

Think about a brand as a Pinterest mood board.

A coherent Pinterest mood board has a certain underlying vibe to it, an aesthetic that is hard to describe but exists nevertheless.

Likewise with a brand.

In more boring language, a brand is a set of messages, impressions, associations, and imagery. It communicates a front that would most appeal to its target audience.

A brand is rarely the product itself but is decided by what happens when it is deployed on different channels and people come in contact with it and form an impression.

The biggest job of a brand manager, then, is of building this impression in desirable ways; making sure every consumer who comes in touch with the brand leaves with a more or less similar impression. As the brand grows, and as impressions are shared across users and consumers, they will develop similar sentiments. In this way, you can even think of a brand as a consensus system with a consistent set of beliefs across people, and the role of a brand manager as facilitating that consensus.

Conventionally, most companies have had a position like the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) who is the directly responsible individual when it comes to taking care of the brand. The messaging has been perfectly crafted and broadcasted with a high degree of control over formats, channels, and the context in which the audience is exposed to the brand. It was centralized.

But now, things are different.

Before the internet, most communication happened between the consumer and the brand and not between one consumer and another consumer. So, the brand narrative could be controlled better as most communication was coming to the consumer via the brand itself.

With the emergence of social media and networked media, brands have become significantly more volatile. Now every consumer can easily publish their thoughts online and reach out to hundreds, if not thousands of people at the same time. Consumer-to-consumer communication has increased exponentially. Even if you have a centralised brand message and narrative, it is hard for you to control what consumers are talking about when they talk about your brand with their online following.

One way brands have tackled this is by hiring social media managers and influencers to preserve or enhance brand image and handle negative feedback.

But despite all these measures, the fundamental nature of how we see a brand has changed from a hierarchical top-down format — where all communication was coming from a centralized place in the company — to a more decentralized, permissionless process.

Brands are now more like memes.

They now have to adapt and thrive with other memes in this complex emergent meme-space of networked media — as they get infinitely remixed and passed on in the culture from one consumer to another.

Hence, even the approach towards how we see and manage brands needs to change — from viewing it as a centralised entity with a single source of truth to a decentralized, headless egregore that emerges in both some predictable and some unpredictable ways as it finds its place in the memetic ecosystem.

The role of a brand marketer or brand manager now is to seed the right memes in the culture so that they take root and thrive in the cultural soil.

Principles that we discussed in yesterday's edition of the newsletter are apt for navigating this transition.

Idea credits: Headless Brands

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