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There’s been an interesting dialog created about the very presence and power of consumer brands. It was originally sparked by a talk given by Jeremy Bullmore in 2001 - apparently a long time WPP ad man. In it he posits a number of provocative suppositions about the brand that, to me, are actually quite fascinating coming from someone - seemingly - in the business of building brands. Nevertheless, probably the best way to address his points is to list and then tackle them one by one. A PDF of his talk can be found here:
Products are made and owned by companies. Brands, on the other hand, are made and owned by people … by the public … by consumers.
This seems at the crux of his argument; that there is a disconnect in the ways that companies thoughtfully and strategically create products versus brands. He implies that brands are somehow less intentionally created; (I guess) that they are mere organic blobs of consumer sentiment that develop, perhaps in concert with the product, but seemingly somewhat independent of it.
I could not disagree more. Solid strategic branding is about identifying the most compelling ‘entry point’ into consumers’ minds. It is about capturing the most powerful ideas/words/images that position a brand in as compelling a place in consumers’ minds as possible. At its best, this is a very thoughtful process that involves consumer research and a heavy reliance on brand strategy. It ain’t organic in the sense that a great brand like Apple, say, just rises from the ashes. If that were the case, wouldn’t consumers conjure many more great brands and consumer experiences for themselves than there are?
To the contrary - when you think about Ries & Trout’s work on positioning - it is the company that determines how to wrap a marketing frame around a product to best position it against the competition and to achieve the greatest market success. If the company isn’t creating the communications that define how consumers interact with it, then who is? It seems odd that someone in the advertising business would be so insecure about the impact of his work.
The specific things that we think about the brands we encounter, of course, come from personal experience, but are also significantly framed by the images and language that surround the product experience. Apple asked us to “Think Different”. We did. We still do.
A brand image belongs not to a brand – but to those who have knowledge of that brand.
A product experience belongs not to a product - but to those who have experience with that product. What's the difference?
Bullmore’s statement here is, with respect, a rather nonsensical play on words. I guess it’s akin to saying that a gift is owned by the one who receives it. Absolutely. But the person who gives the gift is wholly responsible for what that gift is. Brands can spiral out of control based upon bad PR, poor performance etc., but it is the company that markets the brand that is largely responsible for what consumers believe about it. That’s why it’s so important that every consumer touch point be both consistent with the brand’s positioning, strategy, and language.
The image of a brand is a subjective thing. No two people, however similar, hold precisely the same view of the same brand.
I live in Atlanta. Spin the globe around and pick any other point you like. I guarantee that, by and large, someone there will have a very similar understanding about Coca-Cola or McDonald’s or Apple or Disney that I do. That doesn’t mean that they’ll feel about it in the same way necessarily, but the over-all understanding about the brand will be very similar. Pick any other great, global brand and the messaging and experience will be similar enough to fit comfortably under one brand umbrella.
Beyond these examples, from a strategic perspective, human beings are social animals. We live and congregate with others - most of the time with people who are like us. The fact that, as groups, we all consume the same products and media (i.e. consumer inputs) leads us to similar perceptions about the things we experience.
That highest of all ambitions for many CEOs, a global brand, is therefore a contradiction in terms and an impossibility.
Where is the contradiction in global brands like Coca-Cola, Apple, Google, IBM, Disney, etc.? Even if there are differences as a result of local cultural nuances, the commonality of the brand, along with putting a unique local frame on the brand experience, is enough to allow the brands to stand on their own two feet globally. Does the author really mean to suggest that global brands do not exist? I’m perplexed here. I worked at Coke and Kraft on global brands. What was I doing then? :-)
People come to conclusions about brands as a result of an uncountable number of different stimuli: many of which are way outside the control or even influence of the product’s owner.
Agree. That’s why it’s of paramount importance to ensure that every touchpoint that companies do control are of a single message and tone - all supporting the brand’s strategy, positioning, plan etc. Marketing effectiveness (and therefore brand strength) is maximized by finding the single best access point into your consumers’ mind and then reinforcing that message over and over again.
Brands – unlike products – are living, organic entities: they change, however imperceptibly, every single day.
Agree, although products change too. Nevertheless, this reinforces the previous point and the importance of both a strategic foundation and consistency - if for no other reason than to be able to evolve with consumers in ways that are strategic to the business.
Much of what influences the value of a brand lies in the hands of its competitors.
The competition is but one among many important factors in branding. And sure, if one company creates a product/brand that significantly outperforms the competition - then their relative market success may be as a result of their incremental benefit versus the competition. But I hope Bullmore isn’t arguing that Nike’s success is because of Reebok.
The only way to begin to understand the nature of brands is to strive to acquire a facility which only the greatest of novelists possess and which is so rare that it has no name.
No. Branding is not about having a ‘flair of the pen’, it’s about a blend of both strategic and creative competence. It’s about leveraging consumer insights to develop products and communications that inspire and influence consumer behavior. It’s as much science as it is art. To suggest that the strong brands are a result of something so ephemeral it is “so rare that it has no name” is, frankly, ridiculous. Does any rational thinker believe that companies globally spend many hundreds of billions of dollars annually against something as he describes? What do they know that Bullmore doesn’t?
The study of brands – in itself a relatively recent discipline – has generated a level of jargon that not only prompts deserved derision amongst financial directors but also provides some of the most entertaining submissions in Pseuds’ Corner.
I agree, and the point is?
It is universally accepted that brands are a company’s most valuable asset; yet there is no universally accepted method of measuring that value.
The only time you can be sure of the value of your brand is just after you’ve sold it.
It is universally accepted that love is the most powerful and pervasive emotion on the planet, yet there is no universally accepted method of measuring that value. With respect I ask, “so what”?
Does Bullmore mean to imply that because the value of any company or anything is only really known until after it’s sold that there is little to no value in anything? How do brands differ from houses or cars or anything else?
It is becoming more and more apparent that, far from brands being hierarchically inferior to companies, only if companies are managed as brands can they hope to be successful.
And as if all this were not enough, in one of the most important works about brands published this year, the author says this: “Above all, I found I had to accept that effective brand communication … involves processes which are uncontrolled, disordered, abstract, intuitive … and frequently impossible to explain other than with the benefit of hindsight”.
This comment reflects the discomfort that many have with human psychology and emotion. The fact that it can be as quoted above does not in any way argue against its presence or impact. So what it’s hard to understand and manage. That’s why branding is so challenging - and, frankly, rewarding. When you align all of the consumer and strategic variables behind the right product - great brands and companies emerge. It’s a beautiful thing.
I’m going to have to do some research on this Mr. Bullmore, if for no other reason than to try to better understand where he's coming from on this. Without the benefit of greater context, this seems like it could be the rant of an accountant trying to persuade his bosses to minimize the marketing budget or something. As a “brand guy” myself, this makes zero sense. Coming from an “ad man”, this is equally as nonsensical - as ostensibly he made his living doing what he is arguing against here. That said, it’s a provocative piece and I love the chance to write (and debate) about brands!