January 17, 2013 10:59 PM

The Ambiguous Brand

Branding is no longer a zero-sum game.

Back in my music journalism days, I had the chance to interview Gene Simmons from KISS on several occasions. It was always an "experience," and he always spouted off quotable little sound bytes about rock n' roll, the lifestyle and the people who like and connect with KISS. In short, Simmons frowned on apathy. He would often say that people either hate KISS with all of their heart, or that they love the band with all of their heart. In short, we were either a member of the KISS Army or a cadaver on the battlefield, as far as he was concerned. It was an important life lesson for this young and impressionable entrepreneur. You know the saying, "you can't please everyone..." 

Brands try to please everyone.

This is not a political rant, but brands serve the community with platitudes and apologies more than anyone else. Sure, there are a few indie and fringe brands that don't cater the masses, and yes there are brands that know who their ideal consumer is (and they're not trying to placate to the rest of the population), but - in general terms - brands like to have one, clean uniformed message.

Is the brand - as we have known it - all but gone in this day and age?

Lance Armstrong came clean tonight on Oprah's TV network, OWN (sort of... it's hard to tell when a self-admitted liar is suddenly not lying). Did he do it? Didn't he do it? I'm less interested in what Armstrong had to say and that much more interested in the time and sentiment around public forgiveness. At what point, do we all move on and get back to the Lance Armstrong who was both a hero and champion of finding a cure for Cancer through his Livestrong foundation? Is that kind of comeback even possible? Will an apology (or admission) do the trick? Regardless, people have already either passed judgment or are over-looking his indiscretions because of the awareness and change he has brought to ending this deadly disease. There is a big question here: did Armstrong's brand take a hit from which it can never recover from or have we changed - as a society - and we will accept the humanness of his choices and accept him for the flawed individual that he is... that we all are?

This is not about Lance Armstrong.

This blog post is not about Lance Armstrong or any other celebrity who has fallen from grace. It's not about an airline that broke someone's guitar, and it's not about a computer company that didn't care about the service one of its customers was getting. This is a blog post about brands becoming more human - because of our connected society - and how we have all changed and become somewhat ambiguous about the brands that serve us. In doing so, brands have become ambiguous as well. Brands (like humans) are flawed, they make mistakes, they apologize... and we all move on. That's a change in the temperament of branding. We don't have one, long enduring feeling anymore. Brands have their ups and downs and we go along for the ride.

The Superman barrelchest.

Brands used to be bigger than life. They were managed by us mere mortals. Now, brands have taken on a much more dynamic range of emotions. Brands used to be perfect, because they controlled the message to be perfect. Now, we're more accepting and tolerant of brands - warts and all. And, in thinking about brands becoming ambiguous brands, it leads me to wonder if this dismisses their ability to command the same level of power that they used to command? Why is this important? Another powerful emotion of humanity is forgiveness. So, brands have become mortal. They will be forgiven, so from one context to another we have these brands that morph, shift and don't have that same foundation of steadfast dominance.

Something to ponder for the brands that still believe in the command and control model.