When I first saw this article arguing that companies spend too much time thinking about brands, my initial thought was: Here we go again. Someone is attacking a useful marketing/PR concept instead of criticizing those that apply it incorrectly.
But Brian Millar's article is more thoughtful than that, though it might be summed up more succintly by invoking my boss's definition of brand: A brand is not what you think of your product, but what your customers think of it. Too wit:
Brands were...a by-product of having great products and communicating them well to people. ...When was the last time Apple did a pure brand ad? Fifteen years ago? Apple went from a challenger to a leader when it stopped focusing on its brand and made its products the heroes of its communications.
True enough, though I would argue that Apple is an example of a company that not only understands that its brand is dependent upon the quality of its products, but also how to apply that brand in new areas. (Something that Millar takes Coca-Cola to task for failing to do.) Think of how Steve Jobs revived Apple with the iMac and how that computer came to define the brand: The seamless intergration of software and hardware, easy to use, a simple yet elegant design. So what was Apple's next act? The iPod, which could be described exactly as I just described the iMac. Apple focuses on the product, but the product always represents the brand.
It's interesting that Millar compares the concept of brand to two-dimensional maps that allow us to navigate terrain while representing it poorly. And yet, maps are indispensible in helping us get where we need to go, and also helping us understand where we came from. If that's all a brand is, well, then that's pretty damn good.