Monday 13 September 2010

A Riff on Brands: Black Swans, Perrier and Benoit Mandelbrot

It is my worst nightmare. After a multi-day celebration of the New Year holiday, I seem to have come down with with a bout of that most dreaded of maladies--writer's block. So many ideas swirling around my head, and all I can seem to export on to the computer screen are jumbled thoughts.

And still--there is a passage in the book of my weekend reading about the notion of brands and branding that continues to grab my attention. The passage is from The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb's world-wide best seller that does for the Gaussian distribution what Copernicus did for Ptolemaic astronomy. For those who love irreverence, you can't beat Nassim Taleb (although I prefer his earlier book, Fooled by Randomness --more focused, a clearer message, a bit less splenetic).

One passage in the book particularly grabbed by IP sensibilities. In a gushing description of Benoit Mandelbrot's development of fractals (more on fractals here), Taleb wrote (on p. 256 of the paperback edition) as follows:
"... [I]t was Mandelbrot who (a) connected dots, (b) linked randomness to geometry (and a special brand at that), and (c) took the subject to its natural conclusion.... "I had to invent my predecessors, so people take me seriously", he once told me and he used the credibility of big guns as a rhetorical device. One can almost always ferret out predecessors for any thought. You can always find someone who worked on a part of your argument and use his contribution as your backup. The scientific association with a big idea, the "brand name', goes to the one who connects the dots, not the one who makes a casual observation -- even Charles Darwin, whom uncultured scientists clain "invented" the survival of the fittest, was not the first to mention it. ...In the end it is those derive consequences and seize the importance of of the ideas, seeing their real value, who win the day. They are the ones who can talk about the subject."
What is striking is Taleb's use of the imagery of the language of "branding" to describe (popular) success in promoting new scientific thought. This is so, given that there is no single, agreed-upon definition of what we mean by "branding." IP types take various stabs at characterizing its elements. Consider this definition by Jeffrey Belson, author of the treatise Certification Marks:
Brand Equity--"The interest in the economic value of brands as corporate assets that creates wealth for the stakeholders in a corporation." Brand equity embraces brand-name awareness, brand loyalty, perceived brand quality and positive subjective associations. This leads to the proposition that brands are a form of intangible property which may be protected by the trade mark, copyright and patent laws, and by common law principles of passing off" (Belson, "Brand Protection in the Age of the Internet" [1999] EIPR 481).
The creative types, where "brands" are actually formulated, use language such as

that that was quoted in connection with recent Ogilvie & Mather Paris-inspired interactive mini-site, "PerrierbyDita" here, featuring the iconoclastic dancer and model Dita Von Teese here to promote Perrier products. Of the site, a representative of the ad agency was quoted as follows (26 July 2010, under the by-line of Simon Fuller):
"The aim was for Perrier to propose a unique experience to the consumer and generate conversations around the brand. The risque is part of Perrier's DNA: Perrier has always been daring in communication but always remains subtle and elegant. Perrier is not a shy brand, she tends to to be on the edge, and that is what alsays helped generate conversations around all Perrier communications."
 So, to use Taleb's term, if we try to connect all the dots connected to the meaning of branding, what do we find? Belson's understanding seems a galaxy away from that Ogilvey & Mather and Dita Von Teese. Are they talking about two aspects of the same overarching subject-matter, or do they use the same term for fundamentally different phenomena?

As for Taleb himself, the "brand" appears to be his way describing the force of authority that certain scientists enjoy in bringing "big ideas" to market. Whether his view of the "scientist as brand" is intended as a counterview to Thomas Kuhn's notion of the "paradigm shift" in scientific advancement, or merely a form literary metaphor to describe how scientists succeed, is not clear.

Whatever one's view on that is, however, there is an aspect of the "scientist as brand" that seems closer to the Belson formulation of the term. Under this view, the scientist as "superbrand" also carries with it the potential for collateral commercial success. After all, I understand that the image of Albert Einstein is one of the most successfully licensed IP-like properties around. Taleb's description of Mandelbrot and fractals suggest something vaguely similar. If so, Taleb's use of "brands' is not simply a metaphor, but reflects an awareness of the broad scope that the notion of brands can play in contemporary commercial space, embracing science and scientists as well.

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