brand, culture

Brands are like sponges, people

On Twitter yesterday, my friend Chris Blizzard mentioned to someone that I often say “brands are like sponges.” When I saw this, I realized that a) I haven’t said this in a while and b) I should say it more often because it is a freakin’ awesome way to think about brands. So I’m saying it again right now. Right here.

A brand is like a sponge. Except it is probably dirtier than this one.

A brand is like a sponge. Except it is probably dirtier than this one.

It’s actually not my line. I got it from the Scott Bedbury book A New Brand World (one of the top ten books behind Dark Matter Matters). Near the beginning of the book, Scott, who is one of the masterminds behind the good ol’ days of the Nike brand in the 80s and the Starbucks brand in the 90s, provides one of my favorite definitions of what a brand is:

A brand is the sum of the good, the bad, the ugly, and the off strategy. It is defined by your best product as well as your worst product. It is defined by award-winning advertising as well as by the god-awful ads that somehow slipped through the cracks, got approved, and, not surprisingly, sank into oblivion. It is defined by the accomplishments of your best employee– the shining star in the company who can do no wrong– as well as by the mishaps of the worst hire that you ever made. It is also defined by your receptionist and the music your customers are subjected to when they are placed on hold. For every grand and finely worded public statement by the CEO, the brand is also defined by derisory consumer comments overheard in the hallway or in a chat room on the Internet. Brands are sponges for content, for images, for fleeting feelings. They become psychological concepts held in the minds of the public, where they may stay forever. As such, you can’t entirely control a brand. At best you can only guide and influence it.

Those last two lines have stuck in my mind since I first read them. First, the idea that a brand is a sponge, soaking up everything, both good and bad. And second, that you cannot control a brand, you can only guide and influence it.

I used this quote in Red Hat new hire orientation for years as a way of explaining that everyone has a role in creating the Red Hat brand– it is not just us brand folks sitting in a corner building the Red Hat brand with posterboard, markers, and imagination.

Every single thing that every employee does at every point in their Red Hat career has an impact. Sometimes these actions make our overall brand karma go up +1. Sometimes they make it go down -1. Sometimes they make it go up +100 (or -100). But everything has an impact, no matter how small.

If someone in your customer service department has a bad day and snaps at a customer, brand karma -1.

If someone in your support group goes out of their way to help a customer who is in a bad spot, brand karma +1.

So if you can’t control a brand, what the heck does a good brand manager do? As Scott says, you guide and influence. Think to yourself how you can inspire a culture within the company that creates greater opportunity for brand karma +1 events. It can be done if people are inspired and motivated.

A good brand manager is like a conductor in an orchestra. He/she doesn’t have to play a musical instrument to make beautiful music.

A New Brand World came out in 2002. Seven years later, it is even harder for a brand manager to control a brand. With all of the new means of Internet-based mass communication (Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, oh my!) the lines of communication with customers are more decentralized than ever. It is now almost impossible to control what gets soaked up by your brand sponge through through 20th century tactics like mass market advertising.

But don’t feel helpless. Even if you can’t control every element of your brand anymore, you can be the catalyst (both internally and externally) that moves it in the right direction.

The secret is to get the culture right. If your internal and external culture makes it easy for everyone to create positive brand events, they will happen regularly. But if your culture makes brand karma +1 moments difficult, before too long you’ll find yourself attempting to wring out a very dirty sponge.

Was this post helpful?

If so, you can find more tips about how to position your brand effectively in my book, The Ad-Free Brand (not an advertisement, mind you, just a friendly suggestion:).

Only $9.99 for the Kindle, but available in each of these formats:
| Kindle | Nook | EPUB/PDF

About Chris Grams

Chris Grams is Head of Marketing at Tidelift. He is also the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World.


5 thoughts on “Brands are like sponges, people

  1. Great post. The sponge is an appropriate analogy because controlling a brand always involves an amount of letting go (especially in social media). Engagement helps to monitor that loss of control as well.

    Nice read.

    Posted by Chris Moody | October 6, 2009, 12:43 pm


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