Thank You, Mr. Malone

Branding is bulls—. Let me put it another way: If your company seriously contemplates embarking on a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign that is designed not to sell products or services, but solely to enhance the company’s image, start typing your resume.

So says Michael S. Malone, editor-at-large at Forbes ASAP, in an article titled “Brand X — The Modern Day Fiasco Otherwise Known as Branding,” a truly wonderful and provocative piece that is long overdue.

Here’s another pithy excerpt: Not surprisingly, before long new Internet start-ups were devoting most of their energies and capital to propounding their brands, apparently assuming that the actual business would follow.

What these companies never learned, and the analysts apparently never noticed, was that the brand identity of high tech’s great companies arose organically from their business activities — their products, their business culture and their relationships with vendors and customers. It was not applied like some metaphysical bumper sticker.

Though the bulk of Malone’s article addresses the rise of what I call “brand mysticism” among dot-com companies, do not think for a moment that those inexperienced entrepreneurs are the only ones who’ve been hoodwinked. This flimflam game has been played out on a massive scale and is still playing in (of all things) a recession near you.

I’ve been at this business — which I shall loosely define as coming up with ways to help clients sell their stuff — for 18 years now. When I first got into advertising as a young copywriter, it was made clear to me that direct marketing and business-to-business (B2B) marketing would not be interesting to someone who considered himself creative. No committee visited my apartment and clued me in, but I could figure it out for myself. Coming up with concepts for beer, pizza, and potato chip commercials was the high road to fame and fortune. And B2B? Well, a friend of mine once said, “Chris, when I’m, like, 55, you know, and if I haven’t made it, I can always do that stuff. The creative is really bad.”

Now I know a little better. I know, for example, that almost everything that bores a “brand architect” and causes him to damn it with the word “tactics,” is something that can really help clients sell their stuff.

Here is a short list of things that bore brand architects: email marketing, executive direct marketing, click-through rates, conversions, sales cycles, email newsletters, content sponsorships, directory listings, search engine optimization (SEO), and databases.

But it takes two to get caught up in the smoke and puffery of brand mysticism. So clients that fall for the flashy tricks (perhaps because they fear metrics, accountability, and black-and-white results) are as much (if not more) to blame as the high-priced mystics.

OK, now that Malone has provided me a little cover, I’m going at this topic with both barrels.

As it is broadly practiced and professed, branding amounts to thievery. Communications that are referred to as branding are, by current definition, messages and imagery that solicit no response, afford no ready (or accepted form of) measurement, and, at times, seem to revel in their own luxuriant, profligate, glittery waste.

How can this be? How did we get here? Why is it that some otherwise smart companies will reflexively spend tens of millions of dollars on the immeasurable while counting the pennies allocated to efforts that can be tied directly to revenues?

I just don’t know. It’s a mystery. But I do know that it serves none of our professional interests.

Now that you really don’t like me, let’s step back a bit from my rant.

Brothers and sisters, I believe in the power, importance, and value of brands. I believe that if your company’s communications, messages, and behavior are not consistent, attractive, and organized, you’re wasting dollars. Such a waste — especially now when quarterly earnings are missing forecasts and we hear news of major layoffs almost on a daily basis — is a corporate sin.

But let’s remember something. Your brand is everything you and others in your company do. It is the kindness in the voice of a customer service representative. It is the timeliness of a response to an inquiry. It is the quality of what your company does and how it does it. It’s in the simple fact that the words are spelled correctly in an email newsletter. It is in the way your employees and vendors are treated.

Seen this way, branding is all about attending to the big and small aspects of doing your business fairly, responsibly, and well.

When this kind of attention — indeed, this passion for business done right — is absent, branding becomes only, as Malone puts it so well, “some metaphysical bumper sticker.”

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