David Weinberger
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Branding and Knowledge

09 November 1999

If people had brands, you'd think they were awfully shallow. "Hi, I'm Arnie,the Place for Puns," "Hello, I'm Alicia, the Melodious Voice Gal." So whyis branding any better for companies?

The fact is that branding works. We hear "Volvo" and we think "Safety." Wehear "Lexus" and we think "Luxury." We hear "Gatorade" and we think "Bottledsweat." (At least I do.)

It's terrible to admit that we're all subject to branding. It'd be nice tobelieve we're above it. But, so long as you think, in the back of your mind,that Coke is the original and Pepsi is a copy, Coke's branding has worked.

It's so demeaning. The theory behind it says we're so stupid that we canonly hold one word in our head at a time and we're so subject to influencethat all you have to do is say "Bounty is the quicker picker upper" 1,000times in dumbass commercials and not only do we remember it, but theactress's career is cut off at the knees and we remember the phrase 20 yearsafter the dumbass ads have been removed.

But branding works differently on the Web. {Hmm, there's an Intel billboardcampaign in there: Work Different.) Off the web, we've always beeninformation-starved. All we've known about, say, Procter-Gamble is whatthey've put forward. How else could you learn anything? You could write tothem, and they'd send you some brochures and maybe a free packet of Tide("Now with teeth whiteners for people who chew towels!"). So, P-G could sitbehind its marketing wall and choose to present itself how it wanted throughlow-bandwidth media such as billboards and celebrity endorsements.

Now, every plumber has a home page. We can find out more about thebusinesses we deal with than ever before. And we expect to find at thesesites more than a one-word message. We expect some real information. Oh,sure, it's still being written by the marketing department and is as closeto a pack of lies as you can get, but the lies tell us something. Brandingis no longer a one-word affair. What's Amazon's brand? Books? Nah, that'swhat it sells. Its brand is some complex set of ideas and feelings you haveabout the place.

Monosyllabic brands have bitten the dust on the Web. Web brands are who thecompany says it is, including how they say it. And if the brand is amisrepresentation, the market will figure it out in about 48 hours -- ifAmazon's brand includes a sense of community with and among readers, if theyviolate that community, word of mouth will expose them.

Exactly the same is true of intranets. Corporations have an identity. Ifthey mistake that for their monosyllabic brand and try to enforce it throughtheir happy-news intranet site, the cynical voices inside the organizationwill prevail. The corporate brand has to be the same inside and outside.That can only happen if the business opens up dialogue internally as well asexternally. Otherwise the assumption will be that the company has somethingto hide from its customers and from its employees. And that assumptionprobably is correct.