November 09, 2011

How Did Amazon Become A Great Brand?

If historians are always arguing about how civilizations emerge, I guess us ad hacks can argue about how brands emerge.

Al Ries had a piece in Ad Age last week. The piece was called Let's Get Real: It's Not Marketing We Do Today, It's Branding.

The essence of the piece is that the function that was once called marketing should now be called branding. Frankly, I don't care what you call it. Richard Feynman once talked about a scientist who could tell you the Latin name of every plant in the world. Feynman said that the guy knew nothing about plants, all he knew about was what people called plants

Whether you call it marketing or branding or anything else is simply a question of semantics. The important question is not what you call it, but how do you do it? How do you build a strong brand?

Ries's argument about how to do it is very unconvincing to me. He is advocating the "branding first" school of business.
"...there's a new approach many companies are using that dramatizes the importance of the brand. I call it: Branding first, sales and profits second. If you can build a brand, then you should be able to figure out a way to turn that brand into a profitable enterprise."
A new approach? I don't think so. Fifteen years ago every web start-up in the world was following this "quick branding" philosophy. Hundreds of millions of advertising dollars were flushed down the toilet as hundreds of WebVans and Pets.coms followed this thinking into oblivion.

Then Ries makes another interesting claim:
"If there's an iron-clad rule in marketing, it is this: Brands are built by being first in a new category."
I wonder what he would say about this from a recent New Yorker piece written by Malcolm Gladwell -- which made the exact opposite point about Apple...
"The first portable digital music players came out in 1996. Apple introduced the iPod, in 2001...Smart phones started coming out in the nineteen-nineties. Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007, more than a decade later... The idea for the iPad came from an engineer at Microsoft..."
Ries uses Amazon as his exemplar of "branding first." It is always convenient to argue from the extreme -- take the one example of your philosophy that seems uniquely successful and ignore the thousands of flops. But Ries is being coy here. He's too smart not to know that what made Amazon a huge success was not "branding," it was an amazing and ground-breaking operations and customer service system developed by a visionary leader.

Look, brands are hugely important in commerce. Anyone who thinks brands are not important is either blind or delusional. Brands are why we have signs on stores and labels on bottles.

But the idea that brands are built by "branding" -- whatever that means -- is wrong. My view has always been that a strong brand is usually a by-product. It comes from doing a lot of things right -- like making good products, innovating, treating customers respectfully, and doing effective advertising. 

It's like happiness. The route to happiness is usually indirect. You don't achieve happiness by trying to be happy. You achieve happiness by doing something else -- spending time with people you like or learning to do something well. But trying to be happy will mostly make you miserable.

I disagree with Mr. Ries. Amazon did not become a great brand by "branding." It became a great brand by doing a lot of other things brilliantly.

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