In Bob Bly's recent post entitled "The Great Madison Avenue Branding Rip-Off,' he and friend Richard Armstrong argues:
“'Get three Madison Avenue types in a room and it’s ‘branding’ this and ‘branding’ that. But it’s ridiculous... it’s just one of MANY credibility factors that go into an advertisement.'
... The conclusion: branding is just one of many CREDIBILITY factors in marketing … and credibility is just one of multiple factors in selling … so to devote your advertising to building the brand is to do something like 1/10th of the selling job it should be doing."
I've worked on both the agency and client sides of the table, and here's my take:
- Agency execs are right: the brand is paramount.
- Ed and Richard are right: credibility and reputation are paramount.
A brand is an idea in the minds of constituents (customers, employees, etc.)... and that idea is created by what a company says (marketing) and does (operations.) A brand is the sum total of what people think about your company. Sometimes it's schizophrenic, or says one thing and does another, in which case credibility is shot.
An effective brand keeps its promises. Advertising should communicate the brand promise, and operations should fulfill it. Everything should work together. Think Apple, probably the most coherent brand on the planet.
So, back to the original discussion: no, agencies are not off-base by focusing on the brand. However, I don't believe that many of them are going about it the right way. IMO, there are two core issues here: first is the fallacy of 'brand advertising', and the second is that agencies are usually not well-suited to do brand strategy.
The brand-advertising fallacy:
As a client, I was told by my (nationally recognized) ad agency: "no, we cannot do response-oriented advertising until we've run 'brand' advertising for at least 3 months." Sorry, but that sets off my bullsh*t meter. The imagery, tone of voice, tag line, copy... there are plenty of elements that can deliver the brand message in conjunction with a sales promotion. CFOs don't have the patience for so-called 'brand advertising' anymore, and marketing is now accountable for results.
Agency effectiveness in branding:
I'm probably going to take some heat for this, but I personally don't believe that a traditional ad agency can do an effective, unbiased job at brand strategy. Their primary sources of revenue are ongoing campaign development and media; the up-front strategy project is a means to an end. The objective in advertising-driven branding is to come up with a core selling point that can be communicated right now. But I have often found that the right brand strategy (ie. what the market really wants and no competitor is delivering) is not something that the client can deliver right now. I've often recommended that the client stop advertising because they're dumping money down a black hole by running ads that are not relevant to the target audience... yet they're not operationally prepared to deliver on what the customer really wants.
The brand project deliverable from an agency is an ad campaign. The project deliverable from an independent brand strategy firm is a set of recommendations for every aspect of the business -- including the internal culture -- to bring it more in alignment with the open market opportunity.
Don't get me wrong; the really good account-planning agencies do fantastic work in creating highly relevant, effective ads that reposition brands in a more positive light. It helps when the company is already delivering a positive experience but perhaps hasn't figured out how to communicate it effectively. Yet I also strongly believe that since the ad agency is an outsider with no influence over operations, they cannot initiate or effect a fundamental brand shift when it's necessary... unless they're working for a client who understands how to translate the agency's strategy into operations, and has the clout to get it done.
Yes, I admit this post is a bit biased... I am, after all, an independent brand strategist. But I started my business precisely because I experienced the difficulty in creating effective brand strategies for my clients when working for an agency. Sometimes we were grasping at straws for an ad promise that was deliverable, desirable and distinctive, and we had no opportunities to impact the core business. We took what we could get.
Final thought: branding starts with the CEO and executive team, not with advertising. And neither an agency nor an independent brand strategy firm can make a whit of impact if the executive team doesn't buy in.