September 01, 2007

Brand Babble

I read an article by the creative director of a large international ad agency. He said his advertising is not intended to sell products. The objective is to "build brands".

There was something alarming about this statement, but I had heard it expressed so many times before that I'd begun to take it for granted that I was crazy and everybody else was right.

A few days later, however, a thought occurred to me: How does he know whether he's building a brand if not by selling products? How does he know?

Does he ask a panel of account planners? Does he consult with advertising award committees? Does he conduct focus groups? I can imagine the conversation: "We know you won't actually spend your money to buy this stuff, but are we building a brand here?"

What could possibly be a better indicator of whether a brand is being built than whether people are willing to spend their money to buy it?

And so it occurred to me that by disassociating his ads from selling stuff, this guy had craftily found what the ad industry has always secretly been seeking -- the Holy Grail of unaccountability; the ultimate Catch-22. When the product sells well, it's because the ads are brilliant. When the product doesn't sell well, it’s not supposed to. It’s a branding campaign. No wonder clients are sick of ad agencies.

If you ask me, the brand babblers have it all backwards.

First of all, you can't separate selling products from building brands. The idea of taking a deconstructionist view of brands -- that they are somehow discrete from the products they represent -- has led to the phenomenon of brands without content, the product equivalents of empty suits. We've heard their names, we've seen their ads, but we have no idea what they are, what they do, or why we should want them. What’s an AIG and how is it different from an ING? And what does a Cisco do that an Intel doesn’t?

Second, the brand babblers are wrong about how great brands are built. They think they can do it with short-cuts -- with "branding".

So instead of a brand being an intrinsic, organic thing that evolves over time from a) the true essence of a company and b) carefully conceived product advertising, they have turned it into a contrivance that they tack on.

It's the Dennis Rodman school of marketing: if you don't have a personality, get some tattoos.

Concurrently, the notion has gained acceptance that some campaigns are "branding" campaigns and some aren't.

To understand the folly of this idea, let's talk about me. Someday you may meet me. When you do, you will develop an impression of me. Whether I intend for you to develop an impression of me or not is irrelevant. You will develop one anyway.

The same is true in advertising. Whether you intend your advertising to be a "branding" campaign is irrelevant. It will create an impression of your brand regardless of your intent.

But let's not be coy. What most ad agencies mean when they say a "branding" campaign is a campaign that is not about the product. It is a campaign about the consumer -- about her feelings, her emotions, the way the product intersects her life.

In other words, it's the next generation of all that awful lifestyle advertising we had to endure in the 90's. The only thing that's changed is that in lifestyle advertising everyone was clean and ran marathons. In branding ads they need to shave and tuck their shirts in.

Great brands have never been created by "branding". Great brands have been created by excellent product advertising and patience.

Brands need character, not tattoos.

For more on this, see
Indirect Marketing


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