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As brand builders, we often wonder at the ephemeral thing we spend days, weeks, months, even years of our lives on. These days, especially on afternoons when the unforgiving sun suddenly gives way to pouring rain, we have started imagining the work we do in terms of that other ephemeral, yet essential, concept — Zen.

Probably, your brand is seeking market share, not enlightenment, so the idea of Zen doing anything for your brand seems impossible, but hear us out. The act of building a brand is complex, it brings together art and strategy and psychology, it juggles business needs with sheer creative brilliance, it combines short-term wins with long haul commitment — in short, it needs thinking and custodianship that looks holistically at the big picture. It needs Zen perspective.

Just in case still seems a bit difficult to fathom, we thought we’d highlight just how effective Zen thinking could be in branding, with the help of a few pithy quotes and proverbs from some of the greatest minds that have delved into this school of thought.

The idea of Zen is to catch life as it flows. — D. T. Suzuki

What most of us forget so often as branding experts is this: Beyond the strategy and the principles we rely on, the brand takes a life of its own when it encounters the world. An astute brand custodian can catch life as it flows, so to speak, to breathe relevance into an aging brand or pour soul into a sterile one. All you need to do is observe life, partake in it and bring your brand to interact with it meaningfully. The Coca-Cola Company is well known for its campaigns to forge friendships across the divide through the act of sharing a Coke. These famous campaigns come from keen observations of human relationships, and the emotions centered around bonding and separation. What can you bring to your brand by simply observing life and catching its essence?

To think in terms of either pessimism or optimism oversimplifies the truth. The problem is to see reality as it is. — Thich Nhat Hạnh

Way too many brands think that they need to showcase a hyper-positive image or impression of themselves. Many others are built on being doomsday predictors. In the process, they let go of authenticity or worse still, reality. Those that don’t, win hearts. For instance, IRVINS Salted Egg Chips got into trouble a few years back when a dead lizard was found in their chips packet. Their response was not the typical playbook one, they owned up and won love from their fans for being honest and humble. On another note, in 2013, ICICI Prudential had a campaign in 2013 that captured the everyday acts of the sincerity of the typical Indian man (and insurance buyer) through the colloquial phrase ‘bande achhe hain’.

Each morning, we are born again. What we do today is what matters most. ― Buddha

On day one, month one or year one of a brand’s inception, its custodians are clear of what its personality is like. Their actions and product, marketing and sales decision are closely guided by the brand book. But two years down the line, the decisions they make may seem out of tune with the brand. The reason is that many brand custodians think of the brand book as a design tool only, when in fact, it is a talisman for every action by the brand. These wise words from the Buddha can be as an exhortation to anyone who works with a brand to live its essence every single day as if doing so for the first time. This way, they cannot rest on past laurels or accomplishments and will work to ensure that every action of the day is anchored in the brand’s essence.

Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth. — Alan Watts

Another mistake is making a bulky brand book, filled with long sentences and innumerable adjectives all just to ‘define’ the brand. If we are what we do, then by that token, shouldn’t we be thinking of what the brand does, rather than what it is? And then of course, ensure the brand acts as per its intention? Alan Watts, teacher and researcher of eastern philosophy, likened the attempt to define oneself to an act that is ultimately futile. The lesson for us is to define our brand through action, and words and communication that support action. So don’t spend too much time trying to define yourself through brand words. Instead, go out and act like the brand you are.

A very famous proverb with Zen philosophers goes something like this: “Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.” The saying, attributed to Buddha, defines the Zen experience of satori or enlightenment. The work of any CEO or custodian does not change when they bring a Zen perspective to their brand. What changes is the mindset. The tasks remain the same — the time spent on product development, customer service or sales and marketing remain the same — but the actions that entail each task will be defined by the shift in perspective. Keep this in mind as you adopt a Zen approach to branding, and tell us how your experience goes.


Cover Photo by davisuko on Unsplash