What is branding?

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No, B-Bomb, not that kind of branding!

On with the edjumacatin’!

We all know what a brand name is, right? Prada, M&Ms, Jeep…these are all brand names.

And they come with various associations. You don’t think, “I could use a snack! I’ll go pick up a Jeep!” or “I need a tough off-road vehicle–I wonder what Prada carries?” or “Gosh, I wish I could afford some M&Ms–they’re so fashionable and sophisticated!”

This process of creating an identity for a product–so that when people think, “I could use a [product you sell]” they immediately think of you–is called branding.

It actually takes quite a bit of work to create a brand, and as you might guess, creating a brand can be a big part of creating a business model: You’re not going to sell a 99-cent pack of M&Ms to people the same way you’re going to sell a $7,500 Prada handbag or a $45,000 Jeep.

People who don’t know much about branding often think that the goal is to sell to as many people as possible, but that’s not true at all. In fact, trying to be everything to everybody often causes what is known as brand dilution, which can be very damaging to a business.

Let’s say that Jeep decided that the off-road vehicle market was just too limited, so they came out with an utterly adorable line of Jeep-branded teensy-weensy roly-poly little cars that were just perfect for a quick jaunt to the mall–but useless off-road.

Even if those cars caught on, it would cause problems for Jeep, because people would no longer think: Jeep = tough off-road vehicles. Maybe if Jeep was trying to exit the market for off-road vehicles completely, they’d try to get people to think: Jeep = adorable little round cars. But that’s actually really hard to do, and they’d probably wind up with a public that doesn’t know what to think of Jeep, or worse yet, doesn’t think of Jeep at all.

That’s why different lines of cars from the same manufacturer have different brand names–they want to preserve that brand identity.

And that’s why luxury brands like Prada or (let’s make this K-Poppy) Blanc & Eclare aren’t cheap. In the luxury market, you have two kinds of buyers: People who are rich and want other people to know it, and people who aren’t rich but want other people to think that they are. Inexpensive goods alienate both markets–if everyone isn’t absolutely sure you paid an arm and a leg for that handbag, the bag is of no use to the average luxury buyer!

The need to maintain a brand identity is part of why K-Pop groups who cater to a fan base don’t worry about the general population, and vice versa. I might complain about how girl groups get marketed, but the fact is that the Sexy Baby branding works, and when you try to push out of it, everyone gets confused.

Branding is also why Block B is unlikely to change a lot of what they do, no matter how much fans whine. For example, one current complaint (which actually dates back a few years as a “helpful” suggestion) is that Block B relies too much on Zico for its music and should use outside producers. That way they can put out more music faster!

But Block B’s brand is The Talented Idols. I’m not making that up–that’s how they are usually introduced on Korean television shows: Talented Idols Block B! or maybe Idols With Talent, Block B! or even Talent-dols Block B!

Because they are The Talented Idols, Block B is known for having quality music. In particular, they are known for having quality music created by Zico, and to a lesser degree, Park Kyung (who each have strong Talented Idol brands of their own).

The Talented Idols brand is why grown-ups and men can like Block B and not feel embarrassed about it–Block B has talent! They’re not for hormonal teenyboppers–they are The Idols With Talent! See, that television announcer just said so!

If Block B goes outside the group for producers, that would imply that maybe they aren’t quite so talented after all….

Of course, if you know the group, you know that Block B goes outside for producers all the time! But outside producers like Pop Time or all the non-group members involved with Bastarz stay in the background. They do not take center stage. It’s OK to have “Bingle Bingle” be by Dean as long as “Bingle Bingle” isn’t the lead single.

The lead singles are always Zico Zico Zico ZICO!!! Zico is always front and center because he is a Talented Idol who leads Block B, The Idols With Talent, and you’d better not confuse the brand by complicating that story.

Maybe one day Block B will get crazy and branch out to a Park Kyung lead single or a P.O lead single for Bastarz. But I don’t ever expect them to go outside the group. The moment Block B goes, “Our next lead single is by Brave Brothers!” they will be no different than any other idol group.

Talented Idols Block B. Don’t muddy the brand.

And let’s not even get into the notion of Block B giving serious fan service. JFC–just kiss the grown-ups and men good-bye, then.

* * *

What’s interesting if you work in the arts is that more often than not, your name is your brand. If I yell, “Matisse!” you get a different image in your head than if I yell, “Michelangelo!”

Because of this branding aspect, people in the arts often treat their name as a brand name. Stage names, are, of course, brand names, as are pen names. Authors who write in different genres will often use different pen names for the exact same reason car manufacturers use different names for different lines–to avoid brand confusion.

But even your regular name has to be treated like a brand name. This can be very strange at first, and it’s a big part of the reason artists are often perceived as egotistical–they are touchy and weird about their names. Performers especially tend to refer to themselves in the third person. That’s not necessarily because they’re so full of themselves (although they might be)–it’s often because they are referring to their brand, not themselves.

Even if you don’t refer to yourself in the third person, you have to think of your name as a brand. I learned this a few years into my career: For a while, I worked for a publication I will simply refer to as Dullness, which was very dull. 

After I worked there, I realized that all my clips were terribly dull–and my name was on them. I knew that people were not going to read these clips and think, “Mary Sisson did a good job matching Dullness‘ dull style.” Instead, they would think, “Mary Sisson is dull,” and then they wouldn’t hire me for the interesting kinds of writing jobs that I wanted.

How did I know this? Well, my first job was writing for children, and I got a lot of grief for that while at Dullness–people assumed that I wrote for children because I wasn’t quite bright enough to write for adults. (Yes, I graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University. No, it didn’t matter–behold the power of a brand.)

So that was an important realization for me, and it changed my approach to my career. I had gone to work for Dullness basically because it was an easy job for me to get. But afterward, I realized that it was worth it to wait longer and work harder for the right job, because that would help my brand and make it possible for me to do the kind of work I wanted to do.

Likewise, I think it’s a mistake to write for, I dunno, some shoddy tabloid K-Pop Web site if you’re hoping one day to get hired doing actual journalism. You have to think of your clips, and you have to think of your brand.

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9 responses »

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