Feature

What is a 21st century brand?

In 1970, Stephen King asked the question: what is a brand? In homage to this work, the IPA has collated the best of its Diploma entries into a book, What Is A 21st Century Brand?, Nick Kendall writes.

Stephen King: author of What Is A Brand?
Stephen King: author of What Is A Brand?

The first text in the IPA delegates’ Excellence Diploma reading list – the seminal What Is A Brand? by Stephen King (pictured) – is a piece that I have long admired. A piece I would happily hand out to every single person who joins the business, in whatever discipline. A piece I send to people who are thinking about getting into the business.

I would recommend readers of What Is A 21st Century Brand? to take a look at King’s original essay – if they haven’t already. It stands as an interesting companion piece. Written in 1970, King’s thesis explored his answer to that simple question: what is a brand? It then goes on to suggest some consequences.

Nearly 50 years later, the pieces in our book act as a kind of 21st-century set of answers to the same question. And the comparisons between King’s answers and those of the Diploma delegates are fascinating.

The context of power
In King’s essay, the overriding context was the rise of "retailer power". For our 21st-century authors, the overall context is the rise of "consumer power", enabled and activated, of course, by the rise of digital and the internet. All the pieces in the book, in one way or another, start from the truth that the brand owner is no longer in sole control. All explore how to make this an opportunity for new forms of relationships between producer and consumer. They do not fear it but celebrate the potential of new joint ownership.

A brand is…
In What Is A Brand?, King defines a brand as a personality, a set of intan­gible added values (versus own-label) that consumers relate to beyond function: "People choose their brands as they do their friends. You choose friends not usually because of specific skills or physical attributes (though, of course, these come into it) but simply because you like them. It is the total person you choose, not a compendium of virtues and vices."

In What Is A 21st Century Brand?, the answers are more varied, not least because people are thinking beyond manufacturing and FMCG brands. 

However, what I see as joining them is a simple, obvious answer: the brand is not just a personality but a community of like-mindedness; the brand simply is "us".

And, from this, the essays explore different ways of involving "us" – from co-ownership to co-creation and the distribution of the brand idea. We live in a world of what might be called "open-source" branding. The brand owner issues the code – the consumer uses it and works with it to make it better for them, their friends and the brand owner.

The role of advertising
King’s essay considers what, as a result of his definition of a brand, our approach to advertising should be: "We can recognise that advertising is a totality. A campaign, like a brand, is not just a number of bits put together – a claim here, a packshot there, a reason why somewhere else. If we produce it by the atomistic approach, we will end up with a sort of identikit brand. It will be a perfect description of the structure of the brand, as the identikit can describe the contours of the face. But it won’t be the same thing. The brand will never come to life."

I suspect the Diploma’s 21st-century authors would agree with much of this. We no longer like to use the word "advertising", though it is obvious in the quote above that King was thinking way beyond definitions around TV, print etc. And, of course, in these 21st-century answers, there is an assumption that we live in an "everything is media" world.

The Diploma’s 21st-century definition of an idea is "idea as catalyst". Its role is to mobilise the value in the community – either the emotional value, or the "utility" of the community, or harness the community of "us" around a common cause, or even "game". The difference may only be that today’s practitioners’ instinct would be to build a brand around a brand’s vision rather than around its personality.

Our authors also move on to what they regard as the critical question in this century: how to bring the brand alive? Critical for them because they have an instinctive understanding that the real challenges today are about engagement – how to cut through in a super-saturated world of content; overcoming consumer cynicism in a world of super-transparency; commanding consumer attention when there is so much to engage with; managing brand coherence around an idea in such a fragmented world; building longevity in a "here today, gone in the next nanosecond" environment.

However, in these 21st-century answers to bringing a brand alive, there is the same recognition of the importance of the totality versus the atomistic, for ecosystem thinking versus identikit. Maybe it’s proof that client and agency organisation still defeat the desire for coherence.

But then the exploration is of how to hold the totality together; how to make the connections, how to join the dots between parts of the brand and its identity. All, again, with the recognition that the person most often joining the dots, literally clicking and sharing them, is "us", the consumer – as both audience and media in our own right.

All of which makes you realise just how much our end is in our beginning, and our beginning is in our end. These essays, with all their bright, new thinking, seem to collectively call to me for a return to the origins of marketing. The rise of consumer power, the brand as "us", ideas for us to engage and play with as we please – all these suggest a critical need for agencies to embrace a new age of consumer knowledge and insight, and more forcefully start from understanding people more precisely and more deeply than ever before.

Certainly our clients in the C-suites agree. Stretched To Strengthened, IBM’s global chief marketing officer survey in 2011, stated: "Customer intimacy is crucial – and chief executives know it. In our last chief executives study, we learned chief executives regard getting closer to customers as one of three prerequisites for success in the 21st century. This sits squarely in the chief marketing officer’s domain."

Sharpening our thinking
What I still find fascinating about King’s piece is that he uses his theory of a brand to quickly suggest how we might sharpen our thinking: how we organise ourselves; how we plan for business; how we use research and how we use advertising.

When editing What Is A 21st Century Brand?, I decided to go back to the authors and ask them to add to their "I believe" piece comments about what they actually subsequently did.

The pieces illustrate a compelling story of what I would call a new 21st-century strategic mindset.

The past ten years have seen the rise of the "doers". In a world of growing complexity, there has been almost a call to embrace "doing" as a form of strategy – to learn via beta-testing; to borrow concepts of minimum viable product from tech companies; to start many small fires in order to fan the one that catches light; to drive forward by action and reactions versus strategy or vision.

I believe the pendulum has swung too far and become too either/or – as opposed to "and"– in its polemic.

I feel we are more in need of bigger brand ideas, not smaller ones; ideas that create desire internally and externally, innovation and communication, long term and short term, fame media and click media, emotion and action.

Therefore, I was not surprised that our modern Diploma practitioners betrayed the same instinct for the danger of "too much thinking". Without exception, they call upon themselves to act on their beliefs. But I was also pleased to see that they all also recognise the value of what the Diploma has given them: models of thinking, theories from which to start, beliefs on which to act.

The Diploma seems to develop a new mindset in the delegates that I hope King would have applauded – a mindset of: "I think, therefore I do."

And surely this "think, do" mindset is right. To do without thinking is just tactics "signifying nothing".

Equally, to think without doing swiftly and forcefully in this fiercely competitive, complex world is death by analysis.

I believe, and so do the Diploma practitioners featured in the book, that the true professional has theory and practice as equal bedfellows.

Nick Kendall is the chief examiner of the IPA Excellence Diploma and the co-founder of Broken.


Charles Wigley
Chairman, Bartle Bogle Hegarty Asia Pacific

I’m not convinced that a 21st-century brand is vastly different to a 20th-century brand. It’s a simplifier of choice, a mark of trust of expected product delivery, a repository of often intangible but attractive values and a statement ofnself-image and belonging by the purchaser to the world.

What is very different is the way we need to build them. Our 20th-century toolbox used to be relatively bare. Now there is an impossibly long list of options to consider. So how do we build a great brand in this very new world?

A critical element of the process has shifted to macro brand planning: where are we taking the brand? What is its role in society? Its purpose? Its mission? It all broadly adds up to the same important thing: what is the North Star we are driving the brand towards? Once this is in place, the key becomes how to engage in a multichannel world, and it never ends or rests in successful brands. 

Some pieces will be polished brand epics, but more will be mid-sized initiatives and small, bite-sized conversations. The best parallel is broadcasters. If you think of a powerful one, such as the BBC, it is clear that it is, quite literally, never off. It operates across multiple media 24 hours a day. It solicits my engagement. It entertains me. It educates me. It lets me share. In long, medium and short form. And I know exactly what it stands for.

So perhaps the question should have been: what is a 21st-century campaign?

Eduardo Lorenzi
Strategy vice-president, Publicis Brazil

I believe 21st-century brands are a new species that we must learn to take care of. We need to learn what it likes to eat and drink to grow. But one thing is certain: it needs oxygen.

Today, we are under a big and constant transformation of marketing and communication, mainly because of the growth of digital technology and the democratisation of access to digital. We see whole industries being disrupted by new solutions that are much smarter and absurdly cheaper. We see new human behaviour and fast adoption of new ways to live in almost every part of our lives.

We also see the rise of data as the new king. In this context, a 21st-century brand behaves quite differently from its parents. It exists in new fields, it worries about different issues, it moves faster and follows no rules. In a time when all communication will have to deliver performance, creativity is oxygen and it will be more and more relevant and needed.

However, the more we advance in all this, creativity will be the difference that makes a brand stand out in a world where technology is there for everyone, for every business and every market. Despite the practical differences in terms of media and content, creativity is what will make 21st-century brands breathe and survive.

Sudeep Gohil
Chief executive, Droga5 Sydney

In Australia, we live a privileged life. The sun shines, the beaches go on forever and our sports teams are brilliant. We have plenty to keep us busy and distract us from giving up too much of our most precious resource – attention.

Therefore, the 21st-century brand down under needs to be a pretty interesting beast. In Australia, it sits somewhere between a beer with friends at a barbecue, an unforgettable walk through a wilderness and listening to your new favourite song on Spotify. Put another way, brands are about trust, experience and culture.

Australians are good at blocking out the noise we create (advertising) and working out what they are interested in. So a 21st-century brand isn’t what advertising people say it is or what we want it to be; it’s an amalgamation of what our most important constituents (consumers) believe it is.

I agree with Nick that brands have a bigger role to play. This role will require marketers to learn new behaviours fast. Letting go of control is important, but it needs to be replaced with an acute interest in the things that matter to people. The challenge for our industry is that we are more comfortable listening to our own voices than those of the consumer – and quick to jump to solutions without understanding the problem. As Jason Lonsdale, the executive planning director at Saatchi & Saatchi Australia, said: "We need to take off our advertising-shaped glasses so we can actually solve business-shaped problems."

Sanjay Sharma
Head of planning, Bartle Bogle Hegarty India

We now live in a complex world, characterised by information overload, abundance of choices, hyper stimulation, that forces marketers into a relentless search for newer and newer ways of grabbing the scattered attention of consumers. Not only are brands finding it difficult to stand out in this cacophony, they are also finding it difficult to make sense of what a brand should be in such a scenario.

I believe that brands need to be at the core of what businesses do in the 21st century. In the past, a product or a service evolved into a brand; today, we see brand ideas dictate what product or services businesses build (Nike+ FuelBand, for example). Building a brand now involves creating an ecosystem of services, curating interests and creating new occasions of consumption.

To build a brand in the 21st century is to find newer ways of integrating it within popular culture by making it synonymous with the lifestyle or interests that it represents. To do this, I believe brands need to stand for bigger ideas that can influence culture, create communities and lead to unique experiences. I believe a 21st-century brand is a belief to live by and a 21st-century idea is an ecosystem that spreads that belief.

Colin Mitchell
Worldwide head of planning, Ogilvy & Mather

It’s more important than ever – Forbes estimated that, in 2010, 250,000 products were launched with an 85-95 per cent failure rate. It’s more valuable than ever – according to Interbrand, the most valuable brands (Google and Apple) exceed $100 billion each. And it’s more complex than ever – Effie-winning campaigns average 12 touchpoints, for example. 

The 21st-century brand is asked to do a lot more than its predecessors. The 19th-century and pre-war brand simply had to guarantee trust. The post-war brand had to differentiate in a world of new products. The late 20th-century brand had to create an emotional "bond" with its buyers.

The 21st-century brand has to do all of these things against greater odds – less trust, less differentiation, more cynicism – and more besides. Think of it as the "omnibrand". Today’s brands have moved from simple two-dimensional shapes to being like a dodecahedron.

And they’re moving: 20th-century brands were static; 21st-century brands are dynamic. Each side of this complex object is pulsing in response to what’s being said about it in an increasingly chatty world. All this is good news for us brand professionals. If you owned a highly complex, rare and fragile object, you would want someone skilled to look after it, wouldn’t you?


The IPA Excellence Diploma is part of a series of qualifications created by the IPA for the UK advertising industry since 2003. The Diploma follows on from the Foundation and the Advanced Foundation Certificates and is the brainchild of Stephen Woodford’s IPA presidency during 2003–2005 and the centrepiece of his commitment to raise professional standards. 

To celebrate the Diploma’s tenth anniversary, Nick Kendall, the chief examiner and original designer of the qualification, and the IPA have chosen 20 "best of the best" essays and produced a book, What Is A 21st Century Brand?.