I have been noticing increasingly that when marketing budgets are split, the lion’s share is normally allocated to the creation and launch of comms campaigns, with very little invested in first defining what the brand actually stands for. And here I’m not talking about putting money towards developing some short-term communication strategy, but committing to a proper, full-on long-term brand strategy. This feels strange to me.
For one thing, a brand will outlast any campaign (in fact, it can be argued that many brands are developed – rightly or wrongly – as the sum of many campaigns) so investing in a brand strategy feels like a worthy investment. For another, and maybe more importantly, a piece of comms is only as good as the foundation on which it’s build, so if every piece of comms (and other brand touch points) are built on different platforms, then the results can only be inconsistent both in message and tone – which is the opposite of how great brands are built.
Why is it, then, that companies are comfortable investing in comms, but only seem able to scrape together leftover budget to invest in defining the strategy of the brand itself?
Perhaps it is through a lack of knowing the distinction between what a brand is, and the tools used to build one.
So, let me start by saying that a brand is not a thing (like a logo, or corporate identity, or website, or TV commercial) but rather the rational and emotional perceptions created and shaped over time in the minds of consumers by the sum of these things. Brands are no longer simply about creating recognition (as important that this is), but also preference – the stuff that makes you ‘like’ Apple over Samsung, or McDonalds over Burger King.
Comms, and comms channels, are some of the tools used by brand-builders to change or reinforce perceptions with their chosen people. Be it a TV commercial, online banner ad or even the latest celebrity endorsement, comms allows brands to help people remember them and better understand them by sharing their stories or comparing them to the competition.
When a brand is confused with its brand-building mechanism, an interesting (and expensive) thing happens: the brand has to keep shouting in order to stay remembered. Think about it: if every time you hear from someone, or when you hear from them in different contexts, they look and sound completely different, and keep saying different things, then you can never remember who they are. So, they have to keep showing up and telling you, and it’s hard to ever trust them because they seem to lack any conviction or soul.
Now compare that to the person in the room (or in any room) who you instantly recognise, and every time they open their mouth, they simply add richness or clarity to what you already know about them. When you stop hearing from them for a while you still know what they stand for, and they remain recognisable long after they walk away.
True, comms help make all of this happen (it’s the voice and the words) but, starting with comms is like writing a script before deciding on your genre, characters or storyline. Odds are, you will be left with something that is confusing, complex and potentially unintelligible.
It’s the classic Coke vs Pepsi scenario. In THAT blindfold experiment where people were asked to taste Coke and Pepsi, the majority preferred the taste of Pepsi. So, why is it that Coke still vastly outsells it? Is it because Pepsi sells soda, while Coke sells happiness? Is it because Coke has spent decades continually finding new ways to tell a consistent and simple story, while Pepsi seems to just follow the trends? One of Pepsi’s latest pieces of comms, featuring Kendall Jenner, was clearly trying to be the next viral video, but instead left the world bemused by its lack of sincerity and asking, “WTF did I just watch?!”.
Some brands ‘react’ (to trends, competitor activity, market forces) in order to remain visible in the ever-shortening attention spans of the people they want to impress – their ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ is unsustainable and leaving them fragile to change. Other brands stop, think, and only then act. They stand steadfast in who they are and what they stand for, are easily recognisable and resilient to external forces (as a lighthouse). They operate in the realm of attraction, rather than in trying to impress.
Stop looking over at your competitors. You will quickly find yourself on that never-ending comms treadmill and end up with a brand that comes across as insecure and inauthentic. Instead, stop and think about who you are (rather than about what you are saying). Build a robust brand strategy around this and let it guide your every decision and work. Then act, and be steadfast, allowing your comms tools to work as hard as they can so that every penny spent is a penny invested.
Assuming your ad agency has this covered is a dangerous stance to take. Rightly so, ad agencies need to live in the short-term world of communication. They need to play on their strengths and allow your brand to communicate in a relevant, current and fresh manner. Branding agencies, on the other hand, are concerned with the long-term growth and development of the brand. The end goal so to speak. Thinking of the building of a brand in a holistic manner and understanding the importance of investing in a solid brand strategy will help get you off of that never-ending treadmill. After all, you need to know where you’re going first, before you are ever going to get anywhere.