January 22, 2019

How Brand Advertising Became Synonymous With Bullshit

It has become a generally accepted truth in the marketing industry that we are too focused on short term results and not focused enough on brand building. Field and Binet have done excellent work to demonstrate this. Everyone from Byron Sharp to Martin Sorrell have commented on it.

Despite our recognition of this issue, we continue down the destructive path of short-termism.

A recent post on LinkedIn by Prof. Marc Ritson bemoaned this. Ritson included a graph in his post showing that short-termism is not just continuing, it's accelerating.

"Its incredibly depressing to see that this trend of short termism is not just going to continue, it’s getting worse,"
said Prof. Ritson.

If we know that continued investment in short-term tactics at the expense of long-term brand building is counter-productive, why do we continue to do it? Some of the reasons are obvious:
  • Short-term activities show instant results: And there's nothing marketers like better than instant results.
  • Brand building efforts yield soft measures: Even if you're doing a great job of brand building, how do you demonstrate it? Indications of brand strength are not the measures that impress CFOs or Boards. They want sales, and they want 'em now.
  • The web: Online advertising has become the dominant form of advertising and it has been used almost exclusively as a short-term (direct response) medium. As Tom Goodwin says, "Why has there never been a brand built with digital advertising? There are many answers, the main one is that we've never tried to."
  • The brief life of a CMO: When your shelf life is measured in months, there is little incentive for you to think in years.
But there is another reason for our discomfort with so-called brand building activities - and no one likes to talk about it. In some circles "brand advertising" has become synonymous with bullshit. And, sadly, in some circles it is bullshit.

We have frittered away substantial credibility by allowing anything that doesn't have a cogent sales message to be called brand advertising. Much of what we call brand advertising has become squishy and free of strategic discipline. We've become flabby and self-indulgent.

Brand advertising has come to mean pretty much anything we can put a logo on. There is almost no frivolous marketing activity that can't be excused as "branding." Put your logo on a pair of socks? Branding.

In reality, there are two kinds of things we call "brand" ads -- those that are specific to a product and actually help sell something, and those that are someone's hobby horse with a logo pasted on at the end. The unfortunate part is that our dreadful vocabulary defines them both as the same thing -- "brand" advertising. They are not.

Pretty pictures and a nice track is not enough. Pounding your chest for world peace is not enough. Buying a pop tune and having people jump around is not enough. Successful brand building is difficult work and requires advertising that says something.

The ads that best build brands are those that have a clear and specific message about a product and deliver it in a memorable way.

Just because your ad is image heavy and free of a sales message doesn't mean you're building a brand. Not selling is not enough.

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