Brands and branding are funny things. They go back further than you might think, but have different meanings to us in media today than originally intended. In the earliest days, artisans would make their mark, or their brand, on their manufactured materials to identify themselves as the maker.
This process took an interesting turn later in history in the American Southwest as cattle ranchers put the mark or their brand on their cattle, identifying ownership instead of "makemanship." One of the Old West stories goes so far as to tell us about a gentleman named Maverick who didn't put his brand on the cattle, and since then unbranded cattle were known as mavericks.
Today brands and branding have somewhat different connotations. Now the brand identifies the company that made the product and in most cases the products themselves.
I have said for decades that humans, too, have brands and should always be working on their own branding. As we progress through our corporate careers we should remember that we are marked or branded by the way we regularly display our expertise. Remembering your personal or corporate brand is a strategy that will give you an edge in competitive situations, be they careers or marketplaces.
In the simplest terms a brand is a promise. That promise is either to your customer or your employer. It is a contract of trust. The brand hopefully differentiates you from fellow employees, or it helps explain to the consumer what your company does and why you are superior to the competition. The brand powers perception-the perception that you want the buyer to have.
Is your brand the innovative, plucky maverick in your part of the magazine industry? Or do you rather represent the solid, experienced professional always reliable and steadfast? Does your brand represent the highest quality possible, or a low cost value proposition?
All magazines have a brand. What is the promise that you intend to deliver to your audience on a regular basis? Can you articulate the brand of your magazine in one sentence? (Ok, that was an easy question -- or I hope for your sake that it was easy.)
Now the hard part: what is the magazine brand? Not your magazine. What is the brand message for all magazines? Can you articulate that in one sentence? Which was easier for you to describe, the promise of your specific organization to its readers or the promise of an entire industry?
I think the magazine business, now called by some the magazine media business, has a branding problem. Is defining the brand of the magazine industry even possible in this day and age given we are no longer beholden to a single deliverable substrate and deliver our product in hundreds of ways? Are we branding ourselves as trusted information providers? If so, what distinguishes us from a billion web sites? Is it the former and still beloved portability of our product? We lost the competitive portability edge when smartphones and tablets came on the stage.
What is the promise of the magazine media industry that can't be replicated by any other industry and therefore separates us from every other maker and distributor of words and ideas? Or are all makers of words and ideas that contain pictures part of the magazine business?
There was a time when the reading public picked up our branded, printed products, once known as magazines, and they didn't need any additional information for navigating down the page or reading an article across multiple pages. This was at the time a globally accepted format for the reading experience benefiting both reader and publisher.
With the ongoing development of new reading platforms, and lacking uniformity of use, we now present a multitude of different and sometimes difficult solutions for the supposedly easy task of reading. Because of the inherent differences among platforms, these solutions prevent a clear, branded industry identity. Are apps that contain words a magazine? Are they a part of the magazine industry? Or do they fall into another category all together?
In the 21st century, our competition for the public's time doesn't have this problem. Books in any format, so far, are still books. There is no confusion in that market. And of course, music is still music. It may be streamed, burnt onto a CD, or stored in an MP3. The end product is as it always has been: something to listen to. Movies are just like music, only the sizes of the screen have changed. Radio is still radio, whether it is in your car or delivered by computer.
It seems to me that only magazines have this branding/identity problem. With all our other concerns -- and we have plenty: expensive postage, declining newsstand, increased paper and printing costs, just to name a few -- I think perhaps our undefined ability to have a consistent industry brand may in fact be our biggest hurdle to jump. When the digital dust settles, who are we and what is our promise?