Is it true to say that 20 years ago the role of ‘branding’ was to create a buffer between perception and reality? Was the role of advertising and PR to ‘create’ the brand which customers, staff, commentators, politicians, journalists, pressure groups and regulatory bodies consumed? And is it possible that this creation might have had little to do with the reality of the product or the company behind it?
I wonder if the brand existed to compensate for the performance of the product or service, or the reality of the organisation behind it?
Imagine a company as a three-layered entity
First, there was the brand, represented by the advertising we produced. In the alcohol category we talked about ‘drinking the advertising’ and consumers recognised, chose and recommended brands based on the latest slice of entertainment. The brand lay like a cloak over the reality of the product or service. The headline, or endline, or punchline, was all you needed to become familiar with a brand. A successful brand campaign created love, loyalty and a premium price.
Second, behind the brand lay the product or service – read here to see many examples of advertising claims that simply weren’t true to the reality.
To my memory, the actual functional delivery of the product or service wasn’t that relevant. You didn’t buy Sony over Phillips because their products were better. They just seemed more switched on. Heineken and Budweiser were seen at all the best places in all the best hands. Honda was clever to the point of being like a wizard or a philosopher. J&J understood a Mother’s love for her baby in a way that made any other purchase seem like negligence.
I think we accepted that most products or services in a category were similar – so we created difference in the brand and we believed that how a brand made someone feel was their justification to buy. Or, of course, we might have preferred to see things that way, because it was profitable for agencies.
Third was the unseen part of the equation – the organisation behind the product or service. This felt like an inner sanctum, a secret. Who owned the company, where did they invest, who was in charge, where did they manufacture and – the Achilles heel for many companies – how did they treat their staff?
I am sure I helped create campaigns for brands that espoused honesty, service, quality and love for all humans that were, in fact, rotten to the core.
Brands have become more transparent
For me, those layers are now as close as three wet sheets, clamped together and translucent. Customers scratch the surface of the brand and they can learn anything they want about the product, service and the company behind it. There is no hiding place and that has to be a good thing.
We used to say tell clients that a brand existed in the hearts and minds of its consumers. I think that’s still true, but it also exists in the unmanaged knowledge reservoir of the internet and the real-time collective conscience of social media.
I hope this means brands can’t lie, bad practice gets found out quicker and shared more widely and that, ultimately, people are held to account – most recently the emissions scandal at VW.
It’s why so many clients want ‘Authenticity’, ‘Honesty’, ‘Humility’ and ‘Partnership’ included in their brand model. Did they really think they would thrive by being ‘Fake’, “Dishonest’, ‘Arrogant’ and ‘Divisive’ (does that remind you of anyone?)?
Open scrutiny drives appropriate behaviours. It also becomes a challenge to strategists, because we are now working within the limits of reality.
Identifying a relevant point of difference is hard. But then, it was never meant to be easy. Expressing the brand in an inspirational and desirable way, takes discipline and sensitivity. To my mind, this process has never been so important and potentially valuable to commercial success.
A ‘value’ is now more than an adjective we might use to describe what happens in the advertising. It goes to the very heart of what a company stands for – a template and reference point for everything the company does or says. The product delivery, but also the manufacturing process, the recruitment policy and what colour the walls are. What you stand for as a brand should mean as much to the staff, suppliers and business customers, as it does to the end consumer. These are no longer discrete audiences; they are all judge and jury of the single brand.
Here’s to the brands that have never seen it any other way – like the Co-operative Bank, who created a brand based on product truths and a code of ethical practice which dictated what they would and would not do.
One final question to consider, in a ‘new world’ of truth. Why is it that in 2017 polls so many of the top brands for ‘authenticity’ are tech brands?
Is it that these companies are dedicated to delivering on their promises, to acting in tune with their brand and coming up smelling of roses under scrutiny? Or is it that they have greater expertise and more opportunities to control and manipulate their consumer interactions? Is the old ‘truth by managed perception’ now replaced by a new ‘truth by managed interactions’? Is that the new branding buffer?
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