Who knew you couldn’t push a tequila around?

Brands are symbols or images of products, companies and people. But people they’re not.

You wouldn’t know it by listening to most consumer marketing types. Here’s a PR executive explaining in PRWeek this month how “brands” can have a “legitimate place” on social networking sites: “Offer things people want or need…Be transparent and reassuring…Listen.”

Hmm, I thought that’s what people were for.

Or how about this marketing executive for a beverage brand whose company just hired an ex-Sopranos star as a commercial spokesman:

“Michael Imperioli represents the 1800 Tequila brand perfectly…Just like 1800 Tequila, he’s not going to be pushed around. He tells it like it is.”

Say what? Your tequila is not going to be pushed around? Sorry to break this to you, but if it tastes good, it will be pushed from one end of the bar to the other.

Still, I get her point. Her tequila symbolizes something: toughness, straight talk. At least that’s the idea. It’s not the tequila that doesn’t get pushed around. It’s you, the drinker. You drink it because you’re a Wise Guy, or so you want others to believe.

The exec should have said something like, “Michael is like my customer; he’s not going to be pushed around.” People who make, represent and consume her product may stand their ground. But her product is alcohol. Its toughness is gauged by its alcohol content or by how hard it is to swallow. Not its ability to stare down a rival.

Brands are images or associations that float about in our brains. The association with a beverage could be “don’t mess with me” or it could be “man, that tastes like @&#!” A brand can apply to a person (e.g., Michael Jordan), but, please, a brand is not a human being. No tequila is going to “tell it like is” — although a person might, after a shot or two.

What does any of this have to do with sustainability? The practice of sustainability asks us (not our brands) to be transparent, authentic, genuine in how we do business. No more hiding behind a carefully cultivated brand image or letting our brands do the talking for us (as if they could).

Branding a sustainable business is about real people and their real stories in making, selling, buying and using products or services. Brand image isn’t manufactured through celebrity cool. It’s earned through real businesspeople taking a stand for a more sustainable world — and then delivering. You want tough? That’s tough.

September 17th, 2009

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