Much of advertising and marketing has developed into the study of brands. But are marketers and advertising people over-obsessing about brands?
That's possibly a controversial statement I realise, the kind of statement that is often met with You just don't get it or pitying shakes of the head. Because obsession with brand is the 21st century advertising and marketing business.
But whilst I totally agree that a 'strong brand' - a brand with positive associations and that people trust or believe in - is important, I'm not so sure I agree with the current thinking of how they are built.
Marketing and advertising people, and 'brand consultants' increasingly measure things like the above; trust, positive associations, etc. - the kinds of things that cumulatively tend to be known as 'brand saliency'. That might be a useful barometer of where the brand is at, but it's only one half of the story.
People outside of marketing departments in client companies understandably get twitchy when those things become the sole measure of marketing or advertising success. After all, they're used to measuring things like growth, profit margin, market share and 'gasp' - sales.
The trouble is, when people become over-obsessed with the measures of brand saliency and related soft measures, these are then often subsequently taken to be the 'end game' - brand saliency becomes the ultimate aim, rather than a useful barometer. Brand saliency becomes what people call a 'false proxy' - something we can measure, but that in itself isn't actually success.
What do I mean by that? Well, good advertising and marketing people are well aware that strong brand saliency and business success tend to go hand-in-hand. There is a strong correlation between brands with a strong image and positive associations, and brands that are commercially successful and strong in their category.
The big mistake being made by marketing, advertising and branding professionals is in the blanket assumption that the brand saliency was the cause of the business success, and not simply a correlation.
That is to say - doing well the things that build commercial success, also tends to build alongside it a strong brand.
While there are exceptions to this line of thinking on both sides (brands with strong saliency that go out of business, and brands with poor saliency that are commercially successful) in the era of the cult of brand, the assumption and belief from marketing, advertising and branding professionals is that this purely happens one-way - that strong brand saliency causes commercial success. But I'm not so sure it always happens that way around.
So what happens next in their line of thinking is, these people have decided that to build a commercially strong brand, you need to use your advertising to build saliency. And if you want good saliency measures as results, you put in stimulus designed to increase them. So the obsession becomes with 'brand' and its attributes, personality, emotions, trust - the soft measures.
Today, most branding experts and advertising experts alike will tell you that your marketing and advertising budget should be spent building these things. But in effect they are often just 'gaming' the system of measurement ("Yay, look our saliency is great!"). Not actually brand building.
Unfortunately this a very 21st century type of problem. Much like a lot of current popular culture, it's all about facade and light on the substance. But whilst it's fine for a modern pop star or slebriddy to have a fleeting, mayfly-like moment in the sun, we expect the money we spend on building a brand to have a lasting, commercial effect.
Just like vacuous celebrities, building a brand 'outside-in', image first, isn't very robust. And just like celebrities, those with some actual substance and robust foundations (in the case of celebrities, read 'talent') at their heart will outlast and endure.
The 21st century approach to brand building is like the wannabe pop star who, noting that Tina Turner wears high heels and a sparkly dress, spends all their time at the mall, working on their outfit.
In this industry we spend a vast amount of time studying successful brands. When you look at the strongest and most enduring brands, it's clear that most have what we would consider to be strong brand saliency.
But what is often dangerously overlooked in this era of the cult-of-brand, is that their success has often been built over time by people buying, and continuing to buy – and use, and be satisfied with, that brand's product or service.
And that, in turn, that good saliency we can observe and measure in those successful brands, has been generated by that continued purchase, use of, and satisfaction with, those brands' products and services.
Those are very robust foundations.
And often, when we observe the saliency of these brands, we don't realise that that saliency wasn't created by the things we now call 'brand building', it was built by promising and delivering something of substance.
It's easy to overlook the fact that often the marketing and advertising that built those strong brands was used to communicate why people would benefit from the product or service of that brand, and reminding them to use it.
To (badly) paraphrase Bob Hoffman, people grow to 'love' those brands because they buy those brands' products (and are satisfied with them), they don't buy their products because they love the brand.
So when you take a step back, we might ask ourselves if where marketing and advertising people are going wrong, is that they have the causes and effects mixed up.
That in a world where all categories and products are different, where reasons and impetus for buying are different - complex combinations of rational and emotional reasons - that the blanket assumption that the best way to build strong brands, is by using the advertising for brand-building - attitude pieces, rebrands and emotional, please-like-us brand-led advertising, is possibly a little naive. And maybe, an extremely bad use of a lot of valuable budgets.
That, in effect, it's like the difference between building a house out of bricks, mortar, wood and nails – or painting a picture of a house.
In advertising agencies of the 21st century, people seem to be spending an awful lot of money painting pictures.
Maybe those advertising budgets should be used to build instead?