On brands and branding

What is a brand and why do so many organisations spend so much money asking very smart people to dedicate so much time to them?

Way back when, brands were logos and colour schemes.

Kellogg put his signature on his cereal boxes and they stood out from all the other mid-western cereal companies because it was a sign of commitment to quality…if someone put their name on the product, they were vouching for it.

A brand navigational tool or heuristic to get something with consistent quality.

When you’re in a new city, you feel a sense of home when you see the colours and logo of your favourite chain of coffee shops – because you know what you’re getting. Familiarity and consistency in a strange land.

Since then, the idea of brand has become associated with tag lines – Nike’s “Just Do It” is the most famous – that belie a commitment to a higher purpose.

As the industry tries to push upstream, the higher purpose becomes the thing marketers and marketing start to focus on..

As AdWeak says, tortilla chips don’t sell chips, they sell “togetherness”.


The most biting part of satire is the truth.

So when did marketers start selling “togetherness” instead of selling tortilla chips?

Because I’m not buying togetherness. And I doubt you do either.

I am a fan of the Kahneman System One/System Two thinking – that the decisions we think we make rationally today were made emotionally many years ago. And I see how brand plays a part in this. Like the coffee house example. The decision to go into that shop was made, by or for you, many years ago and cemented over time.

I am a fan of the Byron Sharp philosophy – creating memory structures through repetition around distinctive (brand) assets. And obviously a consistent, frequently repeated brand plays a key part in this. For our coffee house, the saliency of associating colours and squiggles with great coffee combined with the physical availability of being able to actually buy some coffee.

What I don’t understand is why we still think a strong brand is indicative of a product people want to buy.

Because for my money, a great product is the best leading indicator of a great brand.

Not the other way around.

The coffee house has a great brand because it has a great, consistent product.

I look at the new breed of modern, progressive companies.

Apple. Google. Amazon. Netflix. Uber. Tesla.

Many folks would say these are great brands. And they would be right. Now.

But before they were great brands, they were great products.

Building a great brand was never the goal. It was a byproduct of the actual (great) product.

The role of marketing is and was to expose as many people as possible to the great product, tell them why its so great and then sell as much as possible for as much as possible.

Ultimately, the old maxim is true:

Nothing kills a bad product faster than great advertising.

If only we knew what this inherently tells us: no matter how great the advertising, it will never lead to a great product. The logic only goes one way.

A brand is a decision maker on the margins.

I’ll have that cereal/chocolate bar that that chap put his name on. I’ll turn left to go to my favourite coffee house in a strange city rather than right to the one I’ve never heard of. I’ll default to that thing that reminds of a feeling when I was younger.

That makes me feel comfortable.

If all this is true, what does this mean for advertising and marketing?

Does this mean we should no longer strive to create distinctive work? Absolutely not.

Does this mean we should no longer strive to build an emotional connection between the business and  its audience? Of course not.

Does this mean we need more specificity in our work? Yes.

We need more specificity on why one product is better than the other.

On who the ideal consumer is and, more importantly, why that consumer should spend their hard earned on this, not that.

On what success truly looks like and on the best way to achieve it both now and in the future.

It’s a lot more work to come up with that level specificity for the whole advertising ecosystem. It means you can’t default to “make the brand relevant”. It means you have to fight for a real problem to solve, then fight even harder to get the solution…and then harder still to make something that is distinctive enough to stand out to the target audience.

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