Monetizing a brand's intellectual property
All brands are in the show business
Welcome to the Sociology of Business. In my last analysis, Nostalgia isn’t enough, I analyzed why a brand can’t be built on memories, and what GAP and J.Crew are doing wrong. Buy my book The Business of Aspiration and find me on Instagram, Twitter, and Threads.
At the time of their founding, all brands come from an idea, an inspiration, and a (real or imagined) need they addressed. By default, this makes them intellectual property.
The original intention behind Apple was to change the way people viewed computers, making them small enough for everyone to have them in their home, thus spurring human creativity. Phil Knight’s original idea for a running shoe company was to tap into the cheaper - but still high quality - Japanese shoes, which he imported and sold out of his car. Dick and Mac McDonald failed in the movie business, and focused on drive-in restaurants selling 15 cent hamburgers.
Everything that brands do can be monetized as intellectual property, from their origin story, to signature products (e.g. Nike’s waffle trainer), to their logo, color palette, prints and patterns (e.g. Chanel tweed), tone of voice, slogans and jingles, advertisements, founders, fan fiction, myths and sagas.
Yet brands are still managed as retail, not as entertainment.
Brands themselves are stories (of a certain time, place, people, and idea); they are also storytellers: they convince us that by wearing/using their products, we appear different. They convince themselves in their wider purpose in the world, and give their employees a shared goal. We all want to be associated with game-changing moments, breakthroughs, and turning points. That’s why we want to be associated with certain brands and not others.
A side note: DTC brands, from Away to Casper to Brooklinen, often fake their own origin story, turning a Harvard Business School homework assignment into a divine inspiration. Origin stories take time to reveal their own significance, and creating Muji suitcase knockoffs, super-charged by VC money and performance marketing, offers well-dressed commodities, but not brands.
Brands separate products from commodities. The more a brand invests in content, experiences, and entertainment, the more differentiated (and valuable) its products and services are in the mind of consumers, and easier it is for a brand to sway their preferences.
Visuals and content is what we consume today more - and more frequently - than physical products; sometimes it is enough to take a photo of a pair of shoes or a jacket and share it on Instagram or TikTok than to actually buy them. Our status signaling and aspirations are reflected in our curation of images more than possessions we accumulate. We want to be entertained, and brands have yet to fully unlock how to lucratively participate in the visual economy.
To turn a brand into entertainment, CEOs need to invest in creating and capitalizing on their brands’ intellectual property.
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