The Visibility of Things: Why Brands Need to Be Very Present and Very There

17/09/2013 15:51 BST | Updated 16/11/2013 10:12 GMT


There's irony in the way branding has borrowed from the language of utility companies.

Utility companies?

After the picture, that's maybe not the opening sentence you were expecting - but I assure you, everything will link up. I am though going to have to ask that you stop thinking about that picture for a moment.

Great. Thanks. And yes, utilities, as in gas, water and electricity, the 'Very Very Useful Stuff' we can't really live without.

Brand-builders would figure "utility" to be a rather useful word to borrow, given it reminds everyone that brands must make themselves useful to people - given there are few better examples of those daily essentials than the stuff the utility companies provide.

Only, I think we've just fished out a herring of the very red kind. (No, it wasn't hiding in that cleavage.) Because how do you feel about your utility providers? When did you last give your electricity a moments thought? And that's because this is the 21st Century, where utilities are meant to work - and so, we don't actually give two hoots (arguably not even one) about our gas, water or electricity, because it's "always there", almost never "suddenly turned off". Gas, water and electricity might be essential to our daily lives, but they are givens, they are "invisible essentials". And the moment something becomes truly assumed and taken for granted, it becomes invisible... and forgotten.

And for brands, 'Invisible & Forgotten' is the equivalent of 'Arsenic & Cyanide'.


Decent broadband, an always-in-range wifi connection, will inevitably become another "invisible given", once it's become truly ubiquitous. But we're not quite there yet. We can still lose signal a little too often. And consequently, we're still grateful of our broadband, still offer the odd silent thanks to a Virgin or a Sky, because it can still occasionally be taken from us, a 5-bar signal or fibre optic suddenly at the whim of a capricious God or mischievous gremlin. Take something away, and its very disappearance creates fresh and potentially urgent wanting.

But I'm not right now suggesting brands be built by occasionally making themselves scarce, the figurative equivalent of turning off the tap or lights.

I am however suggesting brands can be built be being 'Very Present' and 'Very There' in the right kind of way.

Now the fact our appreciation (of a thing) is born of things making themselves present and visible - well, that's why we have brands in the first place. Because branding makes products conspicuous. It gives them profile. Apple. Nike. These are not shrinking violets. Their advertising positions them as social peacocks; life-and-soul-and-look-at-me of the party types. Apple's "products", Nike's "products": they try and make themselves front-and-centre in our everyday. We can't help but be aware of that which makes itself clear and highly visible to us. Apple and Nike are but two examples of brands that shoulder-barge the competition in order to get right in front of us. And it's from that awareness that our potential understanding and consequent appreciation for them may then grow.

Now, Derida (1930-2004) would have argued that "nothing is ever present", because everything can be so deconstructed to a point where any sense of meaning is stripped away. If you follow that line of logic too far, everything starts to unravel and the world becomes horribly confusing, awfully quickly. So let's not. But if we play (carefully) with Derida's proposition, we can also take it somewhere cheerful. It's reasonable to suggest that things can be present (and understood) to varying degrees. Some a lot more so. Some a lot less. As a brand builder, I'm interested in making things, objects, products, present in ways that people find urgent and profound. Enter, stage left or right: Branding. Branding grafts meaning on to things. It can make something present.

The French sociologist Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) suggested companies don't manufacture objects, but rather signs - a running shoe is not actually a running shoe, but the semiotic suggestion of a running shoe. A bra is not... you get the idea. However you want to look at things, whether as objects or signs, I say it's a helluva lot easier to "look" on anything if it's up close and personal and staring you in the face. Which, yes, I guess takes us back to that opening photo.

So you bet, a brand needs to be useful, and better still essential, like the water and the gas, but never invisibly so. "Out of sight" is not only out of mind, but also out of heart, and too quickly an after-thought. Absence doesn't equate to increasing fondness. Successful brands make themselves frequent and "Visibly Essential". There are times when "in your face" can be a very good thing.