That’s just semantics

Words are my field. Hence the visceral reaction to market-speak, all synergies and stakeholders and verbing nouns. Today I am musing on the word “branding,” as in “branding exercise,” “re-branding,” &c. I appreciate the importance of image, of visibility, of memorability. The importance of reputation. And perhaps it is a sign of an outmoded fastidiousness that I prefer all these latter ways of putting it. But we might want to remember that words, no matter how newly-minted they seem, have roots. Take “branding.” It literally means, to make a mark on something with a hot iron. Something like a cow, or a sign board, or a person. This mark denotes ownership. These are my cattle, this is my property. Historically such marks were also inflicted as punishment, as when people convicted of crimes were branded to let others know their status. Such warning brands could also be seen to denote a type of ownership, as they literally embody the right of the authorities to define, to name, to permanently mark, those who present a threat to propterty.

The word “brand” came, with time, to represent a mark of ownership itself, rather than the physical process of burning flesh or wood. Brands are proprietarial; they indicate ownership. They also signify authenticity to consumers: this is the real thing, the genuine article. So while the literal iron brand was transformed into a more metaphoric type of marker, it still signifies ownership.

Branding, then, historically and in the present day, is the act of claiming exclusive ownership to something of monetary value. A “brand name” product is a signed, authentic product, usually more expensive but also safer to invest in. Consumers have favourite brands, and trusted brands. Brands are known for this, or for that.

To bring us back to where we started: branding is fundamentally different from reputation. The latter is social, predicated on communication and common interest. Branding, on the other hand, is about protecting ownership. It is about property, and the marketplace. No matter how widely disseminated, it remains private. It reconfigures members of the community as consumers. And it requires, it creates, a product.

Question: who “owns” a university?

One thought on “That’s just semantics

  1. Hi Miriam,

    Your reflections remind me of a meeting, just before the holiday, between members of the F’ton History and Political Science departments with the VP Advancement and a few of his PR folks. The topic was branding. Some of us objected to the survey they distributed in the fall, in which we were asked to pick and rank the various qualities we associated with UNB. You may have seen this. There was no opportunity to write much of anything–just buzz-word multiple choice, this or that, true or false, etc. The whole exercise was objectionable, but the most offensive question, especially for the historians, was the one that asked whether UNB was about “history” or “innovation.” We wrote a letter complaining about this perniciously false dichotomy (among other things) and were rewarded with a meeting (generously, I suppose, as they might have just ignored us).

    Bob and his people began by explaining the current “branding process,” which is different, we were told, from your run-of-the-mill branding process because the brand would be determined through consultation with the University’s “community” (students, profs, alum, benefactors, etc.). So, no top-down flesh-burning here; rather, we will all brand, and then the marketing experts (a company from the States that specializes in branding universities which ‘we’ have hired for millions) will decide the brand that best fits us all. The survey was a crucial component of the first phase of the process: the branding research. Once the research had coaxed the brand to spring from the grassroots and establish itself; we would all “buy in” to it. This was explained to us as the “buy in phase” of the branding process. No one bothered to say why “buy in” would be necessary with a brand that had emerged organically from us all, but never mind. The final stage of the process–proclaimed with a triumphant straight face by one of Bob’s staffers at a table of now squirming profs–was to “live the brand.” After the “buy in” we will all “LIVE THE BRAND!”

    I could say a lot about the lively conversation that followed, and about the poor naive “brand process” presenter who was obviously stunned by the incredulity of the profs. But I’d rather comment on the sad state of affairs the whole episode seems to reflect. The branding exercise was described as the University’s top priority, essential for our “advancement” in an era of austerity and bad demographics. Obviously, especially given recent events, the administration does not give the same priority to the ‘product’–education–that it seeks to market. Quality and reputation are trumped by ‘imaging’. The commodification of what we produce here–knowledge, wisdom, insight, self-awareness, a commitment to learning, critical thinking, and clear communication–will soon be complete, unless those of us who continue to be committed to education for its non-market value can stop it.

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