The Performative of Branding

The Performative of Branding is a work term report I wrote for the Department of English at the University of Waterloo as part of their co-op program. The purpose of the report was to connect my studies to my experiences during my internship at the Union Pearson Express during its launch. In this paper, I explore how J. L. Austin’s theory for the performative can be compared to branding, and how brands take on a life beyond words and images when executed well.  I was awarded the Outstanding Work Term Report Award for Winter 2015, in the Senior category for this work.

Here is an excerpt:


J. L. Austin’s theory for the performative—words which not only state an action but embody said action—is very similar to the practice of branding as I have experienced it at UP Express. Set standards are outlined in the Brand Guidelines, just as Austin outlines rules of convention required for the performative to existed, and dilution (infelicities, as Austin calls them) will occur if not everyone applies the rules correctly. In fact, I will extend Austin’s theory to say that not only words or phrases can be performative but an intangible like a brand—made up of differentiating character traits, copyright, and associated colours and logos—can be a performative in-and-of-itself based on the branding principles, and their effects, as seen during my four month term at UP Express.

Austin’s Rules
In J.L. Austin’s “How to Do Things with Words” he describes sentences in which it is clear to the audience that “to utter the sentence… is not to describe my doing of what I should be said in so uttering to be doing or to state that I am doing it: it is to do it” [emphasis in original] (2004, p.163). These he calls performatives. He cites as examples the practice of saying “I do” at weddings or telling another person you bet them something. In these cases, more than just words are being uttered; the action being spoken of is simultaneously taking place with the speech. Austin further outlines rules which must be fulfilled in order for performatives to take place:

(A.1) There must exist an accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect, that procedure to include the uttering of certain words by certain persons in certain circumstances, and further,
(A.2) the particular persons and circumstances in a given case must be appropriate for the invocation of the particular procedure invoked.
(B.1) The procedure must be executed by all participants both correctly and
(B.2) completely. (2004, p.166)

Austin’s rules require that an accepted convention or procedure must already exist in order for performative to take place, including the social recognition of “appropriate” persons or circumstances during its invoking. Therefore, it is not possible for a new performative to simply come into being without consensus. Prior to becoming a performative, a decision must be made to make certain words or sentences so, followed by both repeated action of the performative, as well as unanimous agreement that it is such. This intentional and organized effort to establish meaning is very similar to creating awareness of a new brand; a process I became familiar with as part of the UP Express Marketing team. […]

More than Guidelines
However, it is not just how big the logo is sized or how the stationary is formatted. Branding can be very unpredictable as it relies heavily on the public’s consumption and interpretation of the brand, not just the people who set the rules. As Schroeder and Salzer- Mörling write, an “argument for a credible identity” for brands in the form of “guidelines for the look of the logotype and its application on different items—letterheads, brochures, vehicles, buildings, etc.” does not single-handedly control how a brand behaves (2006, p.126). As Austin outlines in (A.1) and (A.2), conventions or societal and cultural norms are what establish a performative, just as “neither managers nor consumers completely control branding processes—cultural codes constrain how brands work to produce meaning” (Schroeder & Salzer-Mörling, 2006, p.1). The UP Express Brand Guidelines can set a structure of conventions, but the interpretation of the actions may vary greatly consumer to consumer. Unless, the Guidelines themselves are established as the accepted convention by the public, and the only way of doing that is to ensure that the every expression of the brand is aligned with the values which we want portrayed and to avoid any brand dilution.
Infelicities and Brand Dilution

The purpose of a brand is to “identify one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers” and establish a unique identity to consumers as a whole, not with many various interpretations (Grewal, Levy, Persaud & Lichti, 2012, p.291). In order to do so, a majority of the consumers must come to the same interpretation of the brand. This is possible by consistently expressing the brand in certain ways and priming the public. In order to do so, the Marketing team as well as the public need to follow planned procedure totally and completely as Austin express in (B.1) and (B.2). He calls failure to comply with the rules or “the things that can be and go wrong” with performatives: “infelicities” (2004, p.166). By following the set guidelines, the UP Express brand can be made into a performative but failure to execute the set procedure properly results in infelicity. Any misrepresentation of the brand as outlined by the Guidelines, whether it is by a single member of the team failing to observe said rules or by not fulfilling a single element set in the guide, prevents the brand from performing properly.