9 things Jane Austen can teach you about branding

Happy New Year! Did you take some time over the holiday season to revisit some well-loved classic books or movies? Along with Elf, my winter reading and/or viewing usually includes a few rounds of Jane Austen.

And, as I was watching Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time, I was thinking about branding.

You might reasonably ask, what did Jane Austen, who focused on the social niceties of the English elite of the Regency period, know about branding? Plenty.

Over the long term, especially in the B2B or non-profit sectors, branding is most emphatically not about your logo or your colour scheme (this Fast Company article’s take on brand doesn’t mention a single communications element, even though they use the word “image”, for just one example). Brand is about what others think of you – and any Austen character can tell you how crucial that is to your success. And her books deal with character and reputation in a social environment that has a lot in common with the social media echo chambers; very little was truly private.

If Austen were alive today, I am willing to bet this is about how she’d describe her principles for a strong brand:

  1. Your reputation and character are what define you – other elements such as wealth or beauty can be a) deceptive, and b) lost. Examples: her entire oeuvre.
  2. The strongest brand rests on what others say about you – not what you say about yourself. Example: Mr. Wickham in Pride & Prejudice.
  3. …even so, don’t assume that your character entirely speaks for itself and that communication is beneath you. Tell your own story. Example: Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice.
  4. Be aware of what others are saying about you; even positive inaccuracies can hurt you when discovered. Example: Catherine Morland and General Tilney, Northanger Abbey.
  5. Stay true to your character even if it seems unpopular. Example: Fanny in Mansfield Park; Elinor in Sense & Sensibility.
  6. Don’t go overboard on brand elements that are not sustainable. You have to be able to live with your branding choices for a long period of time so make sure they have the ability to grow with you. Example: Marianne, Sense & Sensibility.
  7. It’s hard to move up-market – it requires consistency and repeated exposure, and some luck. (Elizabeth and Jane Bennet, Pride & Prejudice).
  8. Loss of your brand reputation with your target audience, based on your poor judgement or mendacity, can be irretrievable. Examples: Henry Crawford, Mansfield Park; Lydia, Pride and Prejudice.
  9. However, you can sometimes make amends for a breach in trust, but only if you have significant brand equity and you are sincere in addressing the issue. Example: Emma, Emma. Counter example: Isabella Thorpe, Northanger Abbey.

Ultimately, business decisions are made by people, and we all use narrative in our lives. My history with you, your sense of our potential future, the context into which our interaction falls; these all form part of the story you are telling yourself when we interact. Storytelling is being recognized as a great tool in doing business. Thinking of ourselves and our businesses or organizations as characters in stories isn’t frivolous – it’s a way of making these ideas come alive for us as we make decisions.

So the next time you are wondering if something might have an impact on your brand, ask yourself this: what would the next chapter in this story be, if Jane Austen were to write it?

Contact us at meredith@meredithlow.com or call 416-737-3935 to discuss how we might be able to help.


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