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Posts Tagged ‘Branding’

[This essay originally appeared in Adweek in 2002. Yep, 2002. As true today as it was then…]

Not the agency. Not the client. Something in between.

The arguments between advertising agencies and clients are legendary, but they beg the question: Who’s really in charge here? I’ve worked at agencies where the clients were in charge because they paid the bills. I’ve worked with some clients who told me my job was to tell them what to do and others who told me to shut up and make the logo bigger. So who’s in charge?

This question came into sharp focus for me recently during a discussion with a smart friend who happens to be a brand manager. We were discussing how to market two products in his portfolio. One had over 100 years of history behind it and was a household name. The other didn’t even exist a year ago.

Talking about the newer product, I said, “The issue facing this brand is …” when he interrupted me.

“I’ve only got one brand,” he said. “The one that’s been around for 100 years. The other isn’t a brand yet.”

I was confused, so he went on. “The way I look at it, a brand only exists in the consumer’s mind. That other product isn’t a brand yet because consumers don’t really know about it. It’s still a product.”

This idea ran contrary to almost everything I’d ever thought about brands. I had thought product was brand, no matter how small, how obscure, how bad the advertising. If it was out on the shelves, it was a brand.

What I realized is that this idea may have been true in the past, when product, brand and need (or, said another way, “the consumer”) were all neatly aligned. But it’s not true now. Now they are three distinct entities. And as such, each requires its own champion.

Now, consider the product. Who is the expert on the product? Who spends all their time thinking about how it is made, if the distributors are happy about it, if the sales people understand it, if the factory is going to make enough of it this month, if the quality is going to be up to snuff, if corporate is going to kill it in favor of another product? The client, right?

Now, who spends all their time immersed in the culture of consumers but also standing apart from that culture in an effort to observe it, analyze it, understand it, predict it? Who knows what the trends are, what the motivators are, what’s cool for whom, when and how? And who can use that weird double sight to create instinctual insights that resonate with millions of consumers everywhere? The agency, right?

And the brand? The brand is where the client and agency meet. The client comes at the brand from the perspective of the product, and the agency comes at it from the perspective of the consumer. And while overlap is good – smart clients should think about consumers, and smart agencies should understand their products – the strength of the brand will lie in the intelligent resolution of their differing perspectives.

Perhaps the most important thing about this idea is that it gives shape to the discourse between agencies and clients over strategy, planning, equity, direction and that mother of all flash points, creative. Each knows what their role is. Each knows what they bring to the table. And each knows who they really work for.

They work for the brand.

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[Note: This was originally written in April, when we were just beginning to understand what a mess the mortgage market was. The fact that it’s still relevant now is not a little frightening.]

I was waiting for my train with a friend who trades bonds, when I thought, Here is a perfect opportunity for someone to explain to me, a simple advertising guy, just exactly what the heck was going on with the economy.

What he said was that none of the people who usually buy the bonds are buying them. Why? Because they don’t know what risk is bundled into them. And because they’re not buying them, the folks who are selling are holding off on generating more debt. Which means they won’t lend to guys like us. Oh, and sidenote – it’s not just the buyers; the sellers don’t know exactly what the risk is in the bonds they’re selling either. And that further erodes the trust between buyers and sellers, which, my friend felt was the long-term problem.

“Is that all?” I said. “Brother, I deal with that stuff all the time, and if that’s all that’s wrong with this economy, then we’ve got nothing to worry about.”

Because what he had just described is a branding problem. These bonds have no brands.

Look, a brand is what a consumer thinks your product is and not what the seller thinks it is. It’s the shorthand, the mishmash of everything he or she knows about your product – what it tastes like, what it feels like, what other people say about it, the advertising for it today and ten years ago, the features, the benefits, the endorsements, the price – everything he or she knows about it. The consumer’s shorthand. That’s the brand.

If the consumer doesn’t have that shorthand, you’re not in the game. Even a bad, inaccurate shorthand, is better than nothing, because at least you’re on their radar. But no idea? That means you’re not even in the game. So they don’t buy you.

That’s what’s going on here. These bonds need a brand. The sellers need the buyers to have a good idea of what they are – an idea that’s not going to come just from the sellers. How could it? Would you trust a product was good just because the guys selling it to you told you it was? Do you?

These bonds need a brand. That’s all. And the good news is, guys like me are paid to figure this stuff out every day. And we’re happy to help. Cash in advance, of course…

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