Branding Today: Why It’s Ineffective, Irrelevant, Irritating, and Impotent

With Cannes in full force this week, it seems fitting (or not, depending on which side of the fence you are on) to take a long, hard look at branding, in the age of the empowered digital consumer. With the abundance of information, especially reviews from peers, and the ease of getting that information anywhere, anytime, modern users don’t just take advertisers’ word for it any more. They will do research and inform their own purchase decisions. So branding now is largely ineffective, irrelevant, irritating, and impotent or plays only a small part in the overall purchase decision. See “Mythbusting Advertising.” So what can advertisers do if they can no longer make questionable claims or tell stories about themselves?

Advertisers have been led astray by agencies practicing the false religion of branding. Paraphrasing Lucas Conley, author of “Obsessive Branding Disorder”: “Branding is a quick, easy alternative to true innovation, offering the satisfaction of a sense of change without the real, hard work. In the blind pursuit of this escapist religion, their frenzied efforts – perfecting names, wordsmithing brand essences, debating ‘robin’s eggshell blue’ as brand color – almost feel like genuine work.”

But branding today involves advertisers shouting our carefully crafted brand messages at target consumers, beating them over the head with every opportunity we get.

A Brand Used to Be a Symbol Burned Onto a Cow’s Butt

A brand on a cow’s rear end identified the ranch where the cow was raised. Because that ranch had a long-standing reputation of raising healthy cows, the brand was its symbol of quality. The buyer could rest assured he was buying healthy cows once he saw that brand. It simplified purchase decisions. But once the “-ing” was added to the word “brand,” and agencies started to ply the black art of “branding,” a brand was no longer the symbol of quality and reputation earned over time. Instead it was something that was just made up by ad agency creatives “applying ingenuity to the disingenuous,” Conley points out.

Advertisers spend enormous amounts of money making up what they want consumers to think or believe about them and even more money on blasting the message out through paid media (TV, print, radio, banner ads). Excruciating attention is paid to which shade of pink best represents the brand. But, honestly, few consumers can tell what the official brand color of Victoria’s Secret is. Even fewer care. The exact shade of red in Circuit City’s brand color scheme has little bearing on my willingness to shop there; the more modern-looking yellow-on-blue tag in Best Buy’s logo never got me to actually buy something from that store. In place of genuine innovation, good money and time are squandered on perfectly describing how the consumer should think, smell, taste, hear, touch, or feel about the brand. But these made-up dimensions are hardly ever effective in simplifying a potential customer’s purchase decision, like a true brand used to do. Modern consumers need more information than can be delivered in the 30-second feel-good TV ad or the beautifully photographed (and Photoshopped) print ad.

A Brand Is No Longer What the Advertiser Says It Is

A brand is now what consumers think it is and tell others it is.

“Digital” broke everything. The house of cards that is modern-day branding can no longer stand in an environment where consumers can talk to each other and their conversations are spread far and wide and are even archived and available to inform future users. Consumers can review and rate products and give each other feedback and recommendations. A brand shouting its message is no longer the only source of information; consumers have many other sources of trust and objective opinions.

Even if a brand claims it has great customer service, how consumers actually perceive the brand and how they describe it to others has far greater weight in the minds of future consumers. Further, digital channels break through information and geographic boundaries. Consumers can now compare features and prices of dozens of similar products – e.g., digital cameras – rather than rely on the measly in-store selection and the limited information on tech spec cards. Consumers can also now buy products that better suit their needs, even if those products aren’t available in their local stores. Branding claims are irrelevant. Consumers are empowered now and will speak up.

Nowhere is the new level playing field more painfully apparent than in the movie business, where examples abound like an extremely low-budget movie. “Blair Witch” (No. 210; $6 million budget for production and advertising) outranks a super high-budget movie, “Matrix Revolutions” (No. 217; $160 million budget for production and advertising) in gross sales on the All Time USA Box Office List, according to IMDB.com. Despite millions of dollars of new beer advertising, some big beer brands reportedly suffered a double-digit drop in sales during the Fourth of July holiday period compared to a year ago; perhaps the product does not have as much “drinkability” as its glossy ads claim.

Big Brands Don’t Need Branding; Small Brands Don’t Need Branding

Big brands and small brands both need sales. Big brands like American Express don’t need more branding. American Express already has 100 percent unaided recall. What it really needs is more people signing up for credit cards. The brand campaign of comedian Jerry Seinfeld speaking with Superman certainly was delightful, but did it accomplish the goal?

Small brands don’t need branding either. They especially need sales. Sweetriot, a brilliant three-year-old startup on a mission, has not done any branding. Yet its chocolate sells for more per ounce than Valrhona or Ghirardelli. In the same vein, Apple never said in its ads that it was about beautifully designed products that are easy to use; but its products were and have consistently delivered on this promise. Google never said it was about efficient, accurate, and clutter-free search; but it was and still is. Zappos never said it was about great customer service, but it was, so its satisfied customers told others that it stood for great customer service.

The true brands never do branding; they never make it up or even say it. Instead the brand is earned as great products and services substantiate and deliver on the brand’s promise continuously. In this way, a reputation is earned over time and the brand is a symbol of this reputation, which helps new customers simplify their purchase decision. Fake brands, on the other hand, are the ones that make up what they think customers should think or feel about them; typically, they shout the loudest at consumers. Modern consumers have enough information overload during the day that they are irritated by advertisers finding crafty new ways to shout at them everywhere they turn – e.g., “on urinals, golf holes, beach sand,” writes Conley.

What to Do if You Can’t Do “Old” Branding Any More

Branding that involves made-up claims and fanciful brand smells, colors, or auras has been rendered completely impotent by the habits and expectations of modern consumers. What should an advertiser do in this Darwinian new world of empowered consumers? First, make a kick-ass product. Second, make a kick-ass product. Third, repeat one and two – remembering that the “kick-assed-ness” of your product evolves over time and you need to continue to innovate to stay ahead of very capable fast-followers (i.e., copycats). But how do you make an awesome product and do so continuously? You listen to your customers and then listen some more. And then you change internal business processes so that the insights gained from this listening can be quickly turned into new product features, value-added services, and more.

We are talking about real product innovation here – “true innovation” as Conley calls it. It is hard work. But digital also provides the tools and venues where feedback from customers is readily and continuously available. Advertisers can review user feedback, comments, and archived suggestions. Instead of branding, practice brand stewardship. Brand stewardship is constantly being aware of what your customers think of your product and what they need. With this knowledge, advertisers are empowered to innovate their products and services to substantiate their promise to customers and earn a reputation over time – i.e., the brand. Good brand stewardship is not branding.

A true brand exerts brand gravity. What is brand gravity? It is the accumulated reputation that attracts new customers to buy and keeps current customers in orbit. The new branding is true and rapid. It calls for continuous innovation, informed by real-time consumer feedback that leads to consistent delivery of stellar products and an earned brand reputation is earned. That is why branding (as we do it today – shouting made-up messages) is ineffective, irrelevant, irritating, and impotent. There is a correct way to do “brand-ing” excellence.

This column was originally published on July 31, 2009 on ClickZ.

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