Is your brand out of control?

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I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity to spend much of my time these days doing something I love—helping clients position and manage their brands. My experience helping build the Red Hat brand over ten years had a profound impact on the approach I take to brand positioning.

In the past year, as I’ve applied open source principles I learned at Red Hat to brand positioning projects in many different types of organizations, I’ve started thinking a mashup of classic brand positioning concepts and tenets of the open source way might help provide some clues for how brands might be better managed in the future.

I’ve put my time where my mouth is, and am currently in the process of writing a book entitled The Ad-free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World, which will be published this fall.

Rather than writing the book behind closed doors and only revealing the finished product, I thought I’d share some of my ideas with you along the way, taking a cue from the open source way and releasing early and often.

Today, I’d like to explore the traditional role of brand positioning, and share some ideas for how I believe it might change to remain relevant in a digital world.

Audience or Community?

Typical marketing experts would define positioning as the art of creating meaning for a brand that occupies a distinct, valued place in the minds of members of a target audience.

But is the idea of an audience for brand messages outdated? Certainly in the heyday of traditional advertising, brands had an audience. The brands spoke, consumers listened... or didn’t.

Today, the traditional brand monologue is becoming a lively conversation engaging brands and the members of communities that surround them. People who are interested in the brand are now as much in control of the brand as any branding expert within an organization. In fact, what the organization says about its own brand has become less and less relevant as old-skool marketing and advertising techniques lose their effectiveness and user-generated brand content becomes more and more ubiquitous.

As Marty Neumeier famously said, “A brand is not what you say it is, it’s what they say it is.”

With the digital tools people have at their disposal today, they are saying it louder and more effectively than ever before.

So if the brand is what they say it is, does a word like audience do justice to the role of the people who surround your brand? I don’t think so.

In the 21st century, organizations spouting messages at audiences are being overshadowed by brands engaging with the communities surrounding their brands as co-creators. Does Facebook control its brand? How about Twitter? Or Wikipedia? These are all fantastic examples of brands being defined daily by the people who use them. I do not think it is a coincidence that these are three of the most relevant brands today.

So what should change?

I’d like to see more brands embrace a community-based approach to brand positioning, where those who’ve taken an interest in the brand are allowed to participate more formally in its future direction.

By bringing the communities that surround a brand into the process of defining it, we acknowledge a change that has already happened—organizations no longer have complete control over their brands.

The people that surround brands today—customers, partners, contributors, fans, and any others in the brand community—should be embraced. We should be saying thank you. Thanks for being willing to help. Thanks for caring.

Yet so many brands are stuck in the 20th century, still giving speeches in the language of marketing and advertising. Many are consumed by control issues, ignoring, attempt to minimize, or—worse yet—fighting the efforts of those who care about them. The shame.

Where brand positioning has historically been concerned with creating meaning for a brand in people’s minds, community-based brand positioning will be about creating meaning for a brand with the help of people’s minds.

It’s always struck me that the act of creating brand meaning in a person’s mind is kind of... well... manipulative. A community-based model for positioning, engaging those that care about your brand as participants in the process, along for the ride, sounds healthier to me.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating we turn brand positioning into democratic exercise, where the community ideas with the most votes win. We must figure out a way to stay in command of brand strategy and direction in order to ensure we aren't resigned to a lifetime of building faster horses.

In the book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of the leadership approach of US General Paul Van Riper, who explained his military strategy to his troops this way:

The first thing I told my staff is that we would be in command and out of control.

By this he meant that the overall strategy and direction were so clear and well understood that he was able to leave many of the decisions about how to implement the strategy to others.

How do we stay in command and out of control? To me this is the great challenge for those attempting to manage and position brands in the digital age.

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Chris Grams is the Head of Marketing at Tidelift and author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World. Twitter LinkedIn Email: chris(at)

1 Comment

Hi Chris,

I really enjoyed your post and will for sure check out your book. I like how you, using practice and hands on experience, have achieved a lot of the same conclusions as the study of co-creation branding.
In my strategy studies I have come across several articles approaching this very same new school of thinking about corporate branding. If you haven't had the pleasure, I would definitely recommend Martin Kornbergers "Brand Society" -book and the article "Co-creating unique value with customers" by Prahalad and Ramaswamy.


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