Whenever a wagging finger chants, “BRANDING! BRANDING! BRANDING!” at me, it takes me back to the farm. Though it seems easy to burn a name into an audience’s consciousness, the process does not necessarily lead to an empathetic relationship. Believe me. I have witnessed it firsthand.

Branding on the farm is a means to identify our product and force it back into our environment if it strays. Branding in the market is a disciplined but delicate attempt to generate a relationship with our customers that brings them back to our product again and again. Unlike the denizens of the cattle ranch, consumers, whether retail or business-to-business, don’t belong to us. They cannot be held in a pen, collected off the range, or herded onto a truck bound for market. Their market participation is voluntary. If name recognition is to increase participation, we must not impart that recognition painfully.

I used to frequent a convenience store for gasoline. It was convenient. It was clean. It was in consistently good working order and had compressed air and a car wash. It was everything I needed. I did not care how many other stores the corporation had. I did not need a Big Gulp or a candy bar. I never went inside, but I bought gas there quite often.

One day, the store equipped each pump with a box that squawked at me. I learned the name of the store. I learned what I could buy inside. I learned where other stores were. I learned what loyalty club promotions were available. I learned just how annoying buying gas could be. I found another convenience store.

The new place is not quite as convenient. It costs me a little extra time and effort to get there. The pump doesn’t squawk, but the screen silently informs me of wondrous things inside. Mostly I don’t pay attention, but sometimes I do. Sometimes I am enticed into the store. What happens when I turn to go inside? I see the name of the convenience store – silently on the wall at just the moment I received useful information at the pump. Who would have thought successful branding could be so unobtrusive?

But disciplined delicacy is not enough. Building a brand relationship also requires disciplined relevance. Consider Procter & Gamble Co. It makes Tide, Charmin, Cascade and hundreds of other products. Tide is one of the strongest brands in the world, but if you listen to the ads, it seems Procter & Gamble doesn’t care if you know it makes Tide. It just wants you to trust Tide’s name. The product is the relevant consumer brand. “Tide” is the important concept.

Procter & Gamble actually prefers that consumers do not tie the corporate name too closely with Tide. It hurts the value of the brand to the corporation. Suppose Procter & Gamble wants to sell Tide to Unilever NV (Lipton, Ben & Jerry’s, Dove and hundreds of other products). Unilever pays less and expects less return on its investment if Tide is tied to Procter & Gamble in the consumer’s mind. The consumer brand is “Tide.” That is all Unilever would want to buy.

But don’t kid yourself. Procter & Gamble is a brand. It is an investor brand. It is very important for Procter & Gamble that the investors of this world know it makes Tide. This is evident in its annual reports, on its website and anywhere that investor interest can be expected. Different levels of the brand hierarchy directed at different audiences in different venues. Procter and Gamble is more valuable if Tide is more valuable. Tide is more valuable if Procter and Gamble stays out of the consumer limelight.

I see lots of advertising efforts that are oblivious to the lessons of the convenience store and Procter & Gamble. These efforts treat our volunteers (customers) as captives (cattle). In a world of too much information, we too seldom discipline our communications with delicacy and relevance. Too often, we communicate to make certain someone will listen and acknowledge our presence.

The steer, kicking up dust on the ground, is left wondering why he frequents our corral.

Mark Imerman is the director of college relations, student recruiting and career services at Iowa State University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.