The Agnostic Brand

question markTrue story: A guy robs several Pittsburgh banks fully undisguised. His face is recognized clearly on video surveillance, and he is caught. When asked by investigators why he didn’t wear a mask, he said “I wore the juice.”

The bank robber was convinced that lemon juice, when applied to the face, makes you invisible to cameras.

This is a leading example in a paper called “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments.” In essence, the paper suggests that this bank robber wasn’t just too stupid to be a bank robber. He was too stupid to know he is too stupid to be a bank robber.

The paper actually generated a term for this dynamic. Which I just love. When you’re too incompetent to know you’re incompetent, you’re exercising The Dunning-Kruger Effect. Here’s how they put it:

When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it. Instead, like [the bank robber], they are left with the erroneous impression they are doing just fine.

This has to be my favorite research paper. It came back across my radar not long ago, but in a strange way. In a guest blog post, I casually used the term “agnostic” when trying to describe people who refuse to believe in personal branding: “I am not a brand, spiel the brand agnostics. Don’t commoditize me.”

I was slightly uncomfortable with this line, knowing somewhere in the back of my mind that I didn’t have a very deep understanding of what an agnostic really is, or how it’s different from atheism. So I did some casual searching about agnosticism and the paper turned up.

Turns out I was right about not knowing. What a gem of an insight for managing brands.

Let’s avoid going too deep into agnosticism and atheism (this is about branding, after all, and I’m by no means an expert anyway). You can read this fine agnostic manifesto by Ron Rosenbaum for more. To boil it down for our purposes, Rosenbaum says this about agnostics:

Our T-shirt will read: I just don’t know.

Turns out a Brand Agnostic would not spiel what I said they’d spiel. A Brand Atheist, maybe. But it’d be more scrupulous to say that a Brand Agnostic might spiel something like “I can’t ever possibly know all the permutations that my brand will take in the minds of people. And I’m cool with that.”

And the more I think about it, this perspective has become very helpful in thinking about authentic, enduring, sustainable brands. Especially in today’s social, deeply connected world.

We know that managers of brands must be comfortable with the reality that they can’t control their brand. At this point, that’s uncontroversial. We are fully aware of the fact that there are many, many ways that a brand will manifest itself in the minds of stakeholders that we can’t anticipate. But there are also many, many ways that we don’t know we don’t know.

And we gotta be cool with that.

Think about what happened to the Nestlé brand during the social media protests against their use of palm oil. It was clear that the Nestlé people didn’t understand the nature of the social web. They didn’t know how it worked, clearly. Their reaction was consistent with a belief that they controlled things, but there was more to their ineptness than that. They didn’t know they didn’t know.

Take one of their responses on their Facebook page during the melee. “Fans” were using altered versions of Nestlé logos as their avatars when commenting on the page, and Nestlé was deleting the comments that used them. Responding to the commenters’ outrage, a brand manager sarcastically posted: “Oh please… it’s like we’re censoring everything to allow only positive comments.” (Get the feeling that if you asked that brand manager why s/he said that, s/he’d respond “I thought I had the juice on?”)

When you think about it, good brands are agnostic. They have the kind of realistic understanding in the unknown unknowns that musters a certain flexibility, exactly what’s required in today’s connected, resetting world. When something unexpectedly wonderful happens to an agnostic brand through the work of customers or clients, managers capitalize without dogma. When the bad stuff hits, agnostic brand managers seem to take a humble step back, evaluate, and respond in a way that engages us.

This is an approach that, unlike our bank robber friend, builds a reputation of pragmatic competence instead of thick-headed arrogance.

Managers of brands should try to facilitate the kinds of impressions they’d like to see their brands take in the minds of their stakeholders. Just like an agnostic is comfortable with pursuing answers that they believe to be unanswerable, agnostic brands need to be at ease with the fact that brands are not ours once we release them into the world. And that’s okay.

To tear another quote out of context from another Rosenbaum essay, maybe we should aim to manage brands with a “profound humility before the mystery [they] confront.”

(By the way, if you’re uncomfortable with living in the gray area like this, grab the closest artist around you and ask them to help you. (Better yet, hire a few of them to manage your brand.) Releasing a thing into the world that has deep investment and deliberate crafting behind it, for anyone to form an opinion about, is a reality that artists live with every time they hang a photo on a public wall, publish a novel, or distribute a song.)

Jeremy Bullmore of the WPP Group said Brands are built the way birds build nests — by the scraps and twigs they chance upon. There are flaws in this concept, as he himself writes about here. One of them being that birds don’t chance upon anything. They deliberately seek out the materials they need, just like we build brands by deliberately seeking out information across our connected social network of information, opinions, and experiences.

But the image is a very good one. My nest is mine. Yours is yours. And the business of trying to anticipate or control how anyone forms an opinion isn’t branding. It’s something altogether the opposite of trying to engage someone to believe in a vision.

As Nestlé can now tell you:

The Unknown
As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.

—Donald Rumsfeld
Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

I am quite sure the author of that famous poem had intentions fully different from how I’m choosing to use it here. But it’s mine now. Too bad for Rummy.