Branding explained to a child

If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.
–Albert Einstein


Recently my son asked me: “Daddy, what do you do at your job?”

Exhausted after an intense day, I’m tempted to give an easy answer such as, “I work in a place that draws things on the products people buy, like the wrapper on a Cote d’Or chocolate bar or the emblem on a Citroën car.”

But pride forces me to avoid this stereotypical shortcut, and I hear myself saying: “I work for brands. I help make them stronger.”

You can probably guess my son’s next question: “Daddy, what’s a brand?”

Like a reflex, the first sentence that pops into my mind is, “A brand is what a firm, institution, or collection of products and services stands for in the hearts and minds of its target audience.” And I hear it in English rather than my native French. Then I remember that my son doesn’t speak English. But the French isn’t any more convincing: Une marque, c’est ce qu’une entreprise, institution ou collection de produits et services veut dire à la tête et au coeur de sa (ses) cibles. The definition works for an audience familiar with marketing language, but it’s completely over my son’s head.

After a few uncomfortable moments of silence, I buy myself some time. “It’s not easy to explain, but give me five minutes to think about it.”

“All right.”

After barely 30 seconds, my son interrupts with, “Daddy, what should I do while I wait? I’m bored.”

I decide not to add the how-to-intelligently-entertain-your-son-for-five-minutes challenge to my first one. I hand him my iPhone and let him play the Champions League soccer final between Barcelona and Chelsea on FIFA 12, beginner level (very good for the morale).

DAD: All right. You can stop playing. Here goes: A brand is like a person.

SON: Really? So I’m a brand?

DAD: Let me finish. Take a piece of paper and write down the answers to these questions. First, how many people do you see in a day? Second, how many do you remember? Third, how many would you like to see again? Fourth, how many become your friend?

My son doesn’t write down a number for the last question but mutters, “Oh boy, very, very few.”

DAD: See, it’s the same with brands—you encounter a huge number of them every day, but you keep very few of them in your mind. Actually, you only remember the ones you love. In other words, great brands are like friends.

I refuse to consider whether the silence that follows means “my dad is a hero” or “poor daddy, he’s lost it.” I keep going.

DAD: Now I’m going to read you some sentences I just wrote, and you’re going to tell me whether you agree or not.


DAD: My friends have something special. They’re unique.

SON: Agree.

DAD: My friends understand me better than anyone else.

SON: Agree.

DAD: I respect and trust my friends.

SON: Agree.

DAD: I know almost everything about my friends.

SON: Agree.

DAD: Good. Now take this piece of paper, replace “my friends” with “the brands I love,” and read it back to me.

SON: The brands I love have something special. They are unique. The brands I love understand me better than anyone else. I respect and trust the brands I love. I know almost everything about the brands I love.

DAD: There you are. You have just reviewed the four pillars of any brand: difference, relevance, esteem, and knowledge.

SON: This is complicated.

DAD: Name a brand you love.

SON: Well, let me think. OK, Lego.

DAD: Right. Is Lego unique?

SON: Sure.

DAD: How?

SON: Well, they have the spaceship Darth Vader uses when he chases Luke in Episode IV. You can put the pieces together in all kinds of ways to create a bunch of different spaceships.

DAD: Are there other brands that sell Star Wars stuff?

SON: Yeah, but you can only build a Star Wars spaceship and then transform it into whatever you want afterward with Lego.

DAD: So Lego is giving you what you expect?

SON: Of course. It’s awesome to be able to build whatever you want. And if you have different Star Wars Legos like I do, you can combine the pieces, like from Luke Skywalker’s X-wing fighter and Darth Vader’s spaceship, to invent an even more powerful spacecraft.

DAD: So, seeing Lego as unique is what we call difference. And giving you what you expect is what we call relevance.

SON: All right.

DAD: And just between us, putting all of your Lego pieces in one box is what we call a mess.

SON: But mess isn’t a pillar, right?

DAD: You learn fast. OK, let’s keep going. Do you believe what Lego tells you?

SON: Sure. I visit their website to play games and find manuals that I’ve lost. They also give really good advice on building stuff. They’re supercool.

DAD: This is what we call esteem. You seem to know a lot about what they’re doing.

SON: Totally. I love reading their catalog! I almost know it by heart. And I always check to see if they’ve come out with new Ninjago characters.

DAD: That’s it, we’ve just completed our journey with the fourth pillar, knowledge.

SON: Great. Can I have your iPhone again?

DAD: Not yet. Tell me, why did you ask for Mega Bloks and not a single Lego box last Christmas?

SON: Well, I found out about Mega Bloks when I was playing the Halo Wars video game with my friends. And I really wanted to get the Rocket Warthog and the Pelican Dropship.


DAD: More than any Star Wars device?

SON: Yeah.

DAD: Sounds like Mega Bloks Halo Wars is your new friend, and that you prefer it to your old friend Lego?

SON: Kind of. They’re totally awesome.

DAD: Who’s your best friend today?

SON: Well I have a few: Simon, Abel, and Elliott.

DAD: Are they the same friends as when you were younger?

SON: Not exactly. When I was younger, there was also Félix.

DAD: Well, what happens with friends happens with brands, too. It’s like this: Maybe a friend or brand isn’t that unique anymore; I’ve met some other people/brands who are even cooler (loss of difference). This friend/brand doesn’t understand me like he used to, we have less and less in common (loss of relevance). I’m not sure if I still respect or trust this friend/brand the way I used to (loss of esteem). To me this friend/brand is just a name now (loss of knowledge).

SON: This is sad, Daddy.

DAD: Not necessarily. It just means that if you want to keep your friends, you not only have to stay special to them, but you also have to pay attention to them. It’s the same with brands. It’s not easy! There are always new brands that are trying to be cooler than the ones that already exist. Also, people change and their tastes change. C’est la vie! Brands have to keep trying to understand their customers and give them what they need.

SON: And that’s your job?

DAD: Exactly. I help brands find and hold on to what makes them different and relevant. When a brand is both, the brand is strong. My job is helping make brands stronger.

SON: And how do you do that?

DAD: Well, that’s a story for another time. To be honest, it’s easier said than done. But it’s also really exciting.

SON: As exciting as the Champions League final between Barcelona and Chelsea on FIFA 12?

DAD: Right. Here’s my iPhone.


This article was published in French in Le journal du Net (12 September 2012).

© 2012 Landor. All rights reserved.