These are interesting times, in which the prevalence of complex systems has been widely recognised, and yet we’ve continued to try to manage those systems using tools conceived for simpler, mechanical models. Those complex systems characterise everything from global economies to business organisations and their relationships with their markets.
The attraction of simplicity is obvious: it gives us a clear path of action. The problem is also obvious, that oversimplification can obscure what really needs to be done. The global banking crisis is only the most recent catastrophic example of what can go wrong when we believe a blinkered myth of our own potency.
That myth is consistent with the characteristics of left brain function so carefully described and explored by Iain McGilchrist in his book, The Master and his Emissary. If McGilchrist is right (and to my mind at least he is persuasive) the processes that go on in the left hemisphere of the brain tend to underestimate what lies in front of us: they look for useful simplicity and seek to exclude complexity, and yet complexity is what we have, and ideas (let alone solutions) that ignore this complexity are likely to be misleading.
I want to suggest that the ways we think about brand have been distorted by over-simplification, particularly when we try to understand the possible relationship between brand and corporate culture. A sign of the problem is the way managers typically see culture change as an engineering challenge, with communication as the primary tool. This reflects the deep rooted metaphor of the business as a machine, when in truth they are much more like an organic body, constantly changing.
To do better things, we have to start with a recognition that we need to live with and indeed embrace complexity: it’s a different way of looking at things.
I am not suggesting that we should never think about brand. In truth I’m arguing that we should think more about it, in the sense that we should think much harder about it. It’s an important concept for marketing, but the way it’s being misused as the explicit engine of internal and external communication makes it self-defeating (you could say that brand is too important a concept to be left to marketing communication people). We need to find a more appropriate, thoughtful way of understanding brand (a way that distinguishes it from identity) in what we do. And we need to stop confusing communication itself for the things it’s supposed to be achieving.