Marketing's greatest invention is the brand. In effect unheard of 100 years ago, brands and branding now march triumphant. Everything and everybody - places and destinations, political parties and social movements, people (first celebrities and politicians, now, it appears, all of us) - are brands.
Yet, aside from a few usual suspects such as Apple, in the branding heartlands, all is not well. Y&R executives John Gerzema and Ed Lebar highlighted the problem in 2008, when they reviewed longitudinal evidence from Y&R's Brand Asset Valuator research programme. In their book The Brand Bubble, they charted a 'precipitous' decline in brand trust since 1993, along with sharp falls in consumer perceptions of quality, brand awareness and 'brand esteem'.
In 1993, for example, consumers trusted 52% of the brands researchers asked them about. Fifteen years later, the figure had fallen to 25%. Gerzema and Lebar pointed out that stock markets may have been pushing up the value of brand-owning companies, but brands themselves were being 'hollowed out'.
Then came recession. Halfway through, Promise chief executive Charles Trevail observed that 'according to every survey and index on trust in institutions and organisations from around the world, trust is in terminal decline'. Even when the recession was supposed to be lifting, Alterian chief executive David Eldridge commented on his company's latest research: 'Consumer trust is at an all-time low.'
So what's the problem? How can brands and branding be so successful, yet so sickly at the same time? The answer may lie with the occupational diseases of brand management - diseases that are generated by the daily working lives of brand managers.
Masking the problem
Brand management as 'mask management' is the most common of such diseases. Because brands are all about external communication, many brand managers find it hard to resist the temptation to paint 'lipstick on the gorilla' - telling customers what the brand manager knows they would like to hear, rather than keeping to the truth of what the organisation can, or actually intends to, deliver.
In reality, the most important part of the brand manager's job is one of internalisation: bringing customer views and perceptions from outside the organisation inside, so that the organisation understands, responds and resonates to customers' changing demands. Yet, activity-wise, the minute-by-minute focus of the day job is external communication. When changing the external message is easy (and fun) and changing the organisation inside is hard (and painful), the lures of lipstick-on-the-gorilla mask management can become irresistible. In fact, they can even be dressed up as a new theory. Remember when we were told that punters didn't buy the beer, but its advertising? Remember George, the Hofmeister bear?
Next on the list is brand hubris. Not long ago, it was fashionable among brand consultants to show their clients a chart depicting the relative prices of different T-shirts. Some sold for a fiver or less, while branded ones were at least £50. 'Which T-shirt do you want to be?' the consultants would ask. The difference between being able to charge £5 and £50 lies in 'branding', they would say. 'We can help you become experts at "branding".'
Well, they may have been experts at branding, but they were dunces at economics. If you sell 1000 T-shirts for £5 with a £1 margin, you make £1000 profit. If you sell 10 for £50 with a £48 margin, you make £480 profit. By implying that the supply/demand curve could be 'branded' away, these consultants were usually doing their clients a real disservice. While they were doing the rounds with their presentations on 'branding', full of impressive words such as 'intangibles', the brand that romped it on the high street was Primark.
That is not to say that discounting is always the best strategy. Rather, it is to challenge the widespread belief that it's the 'extra stuff on top' - the stuff added by 'branding' - that is the source of brands' margins and profits. The fact is that, apart from some special cases such as luxury goods, if you look at most successful brands - such as Amazon, Apple, Dell, easyJet, Facebook, Google, IKEA, Nike, Starbucks, Tesco, Toyota, Virgin and Wal-Mart - what marks them out is not superb 'branding' (sometimes it's superb, but very often it's not) but that they deliver outstanding customer value, often via breakthrough innovations, technology and/or underlying business models.
'Branding' alone hardly ever makes a business successful. It is businesses, including their culture and ethos, that make brands successful. And as soon as the business drops the ball on innovation, service, quality or price, or forgets its cultural roots, the brand quickly loses its lustre.
Clarity of purpose
Brand narcissism is our third, closely related, occupational disease. Brand narcissism works on two levels. At the first, every brand manager desperately wants their target audience to recognise their brand, love it and be loyal to it by, for example, acting as an unpaid yet enthusiastic brand 'advocate'.
There is nothing wrong with these dreams per se. They are natural. What is wrong is when we morph the wish into a 'strategy' of 'success by being popular' - where getting people to talk about and 'love' the brand becomes an end in itself, pretty much divorced from the value it's supposed to be delivering.
The second level of this brand narcissism, which is even more dangerous, is where the brand manager forgets the underlying purpose of the brand and starts acting as if it's the job of the customer to add value to the brand (by paying a price premium or being its 'advocate', for example), rather than the job of the brand to add value to the customer.
An obvious point, perhaps, but it can be difficult to remember in a world where your every passing thought - and key performance indicator - is about how well-remembered you are, how preferred you are, or how many people are talking about you.
Our final occupational disease is toolkit myopia. Brand managers are surrounded by a dizzying array of sophisticated tools and techniques for research, testing, data-gathering and evaluation. They are on an endless quest for the breakthrough insight and the sparkling creativity. It's difficult to master all these things and the quest easily becomes obsessive. So much so, that it soon seems as if excellence at these diverse technicalities lies at the heart of successful branding - when it is not.
You can, for example, use exactly the same technical toolkit, excellence, to build a brand that perfectly communicates a brand's unique value ...
and to hide the fact that the brand is nothing more than a me-too mediocrity. You can use technical excellence to articulate specialness and hide sameness, but content-wise, they are opposites, having an opposite meaning to the customer.
The one thing that branding as mask management, brand hubris, brand narcissism and toolkit myopia have in common is that they destroy trust. They are potentially catastrophic mistakes, yet they are in the air brand managers breathe, growing naturally in their working environment. So they have to be combated on a daily basis.
How? What's the antidote? To remember that a brand's real job is to build trust, and that everything the brand does must be tested against this yardstick. It's this simple - human -understanding that successful brand managers never let anyone forget.
Alan Mitchell is a respected author and a founder of Ctrl-Shift and Mydex.