Nov 162011

We are less than 2 months away from the next installment of Lake Superior State University’s (narrowly) famous annual list of banished words. These are the words and phrases that have been so overused as to have, first, lost all meaning and, second,  become noxious.

My contribution for the January 2012 list is “brand permission.”  Despite my reasoning as follows, I first want to doff my hat at the guy who coined the term and hope he or she is making a royalty from its use. Still, draw and quarter the phrase and bury the parts in different places.

The phrase “brand permission” is a kitschy bit of shorthand for “Will our customer’s accept such an offering/communication/position from this business/organization?” This is not a novel rumination among business people; it’s common sense that’s merely been given a sound-bite. My issue is that it has been overworked as though it we’re on an overlooked scrap of lambskin found in a jar near the Dead Sea. Really, can’t we not speak in tongues?  The question is:  “Will we be able to sell this to anybody who knows our business?”  And it applies only to extension products.

Does a mortuary really need to question “brand permission” to know that becoming a full-service funeral home or installing an incinerator for cremation services would make sense, while adding a terminal patient palliative care ward next door might make efficiency sense but probably would horrify the marketplace? Does a dolt of an action hero (or bimbo–to be fair) really need to be told that they’re kind of typecast and wouldn’t be credible in a sensitive dad or bookish librarian Mensa member roles?  (OK, they probably shouldn’t need it but apparently the lesson here is less powerful than ego.) It’s not magic.

More than that, by becoming an incantation it leads to abusive overkill and caution.  The outcome here, from the “brand non-permission” cravenness, is that innovation and expansion narrows to conservative irrelevance.  The entire concept smacks of stasis. In the hands of an unnuanced mind, it will be inhibit change and development because there is no permission to move beyond what is.  Logically, you can not have permission to do what the authority (in this case the faceless “market”) does not know.  (My child neither has nor does not have permission to be a star high-school musician travelling around the world giving concerts: I–the faceless authority–haven’t contemplated that seriously as yet.)

In the extreme case, as a lumbering company Nokia probably didn’t have brand permission to become a cellular handset leader. And only in the wispy memory of what has already become do we readily see and say that Apple had “brand permission” to jump into consumer electronics, the music business, and even the tablet computing space. Let’s recall, at the time of the first ipod, Apple was a near-death, small share maker of personal computers, AND it had failed miserably with its first foray into portable computing.  (Can anyone say “Newton?”) It’s claim was that it’s computing equipment focused on design and shifted that category from beige boxes. Did it really have “brand permission” to make a portable music player? –to upend the entire music business?  Really?  Be honest?

“Brand permission” is, like so much other business-speak, a way to contribute risk measurement and caution.  It also has the value of forcing one to think about “sticking to your knitting” or “staying focused.” It also generates rationale gymnastics to prove that an idea does, in fact, have permission.  That’s a natural second order effect.

For at least these reasons, and for so many more–and because the phrase is getting nauseating:  LSSU, please banish it.

 Posted by on 16 Nov 2011

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