‘Paying for the air’

Posted on in BrandBlab

Working in so called emerging markets you get used to having to defend the business logic of brand development but I was particularly ‘challenged’ when a prospective client indicated that developing a brand was like ‘paying for air!’. I had to admit some sympathy with his view given the typical associations of hot air and bullshit with branding. New markets and developed markets still experience the traditional selling of brands by creative agencies peddling branding as a visual ‘packaging’ image exercise based on TV and billboard advertising campaigns. Media advertising groups, design and communication agencies still feel they are the sole arbiters and developers of ‘things to do with branding’ for their clients.

Unfortunately, these vested interests are having a major drag effect on the evolution of branding being seen as a central business activity and ethos. I’ve never had the mindset that branding had to be a marketing-led proposition. Having come from the outside discipline of architecture it seemed obvious that the ‘b’ word involved, by definition, everything a company does in line with what it says. Changes in consumer awareness, the transparency of the internet and general empowerment of customers to influence brands, rather than just be influenced by them has changed the rules.

We are told customers are more canny, but I wonder sometimes? While I may preach this I get depressed listening to people still convincing themselves their favourite brand is really different from a competitor brand that appears to do just the same. I’m still trying to figure out the real differences between Tesco and Sainsbury’s for example – frankly both can be as satisfying or disappointing in equal measures, as competent efficient UK supermarket offers, but dinner party conversations still betray emotional status conscious attributes. Everyone would like to shop at Waitrose but is there such a difference? Or is it the image that still really ultimately counts? Such is the power of emotion over logic – the magic of branding, and maybe I am kidding myself we are past the stage of being convinced by just clever brand image building.

The good news is we are now in an interesting era where the real brand experience is the increasingly vital component in creating the brands’ reputation – successfully delivering the promise. Today’s ‘new values’ now mean ideally a first choice company, and the offer should have values that synchronize with their users and audiences. But we are still a long way off from understanding branding in the wider sense. There are excellent books and papers on the need for branding to be embraced as an integral company management philosophy. However the vested interests of so-called branding agencies still target the belief of clients that a cosmetic makeover of an existing brand or a magical name and brand identity for a new brand will solve their business problems. Visual brand manifestations and carefully designed media communications, formats and environments clearly play a key role and are immediate tangible results of investment in ‘air’. The obvious danger is that is stops there and the client feels they can tick the branding box.

So here’s the crunch for me – I know what I’m selling to clients is important. As a strategic branding and design consultancy our mission is to help them successfully differentiate their operations in a competitive market by aligning the image, media, offer, experience and people. But I do recognize we are part of the success matrix. That’s why the development of collaborations between different professional expertise is vital to ensure companywide functions are effectively synchronized to create best value.

We work with some clients who still see branding as just an identity, format design and brand book and the challenge for us is to create a real brand strategy with defined and agreed business attributes – vision and values that can be used as a real catalyst for management and employee mindset change as well as defining their market differentiation. We do this as strategic consultants but it’s scary when you realise the carefully agreed words and imagery are not always understood to be real ‘guideline’ criteria for company actions and behaviour –  a starting point for internal brand culture development to make these values and aims relevant and motivating for management and employees.

We believe in what we do but we have a long way to go if the starting point for many clients is still just a brand media package. Perhaps the concept of ‘paying for air’ is not so wrong if we
can convince our clients that without air you die. There is a growing realisation that branding is not a ‘nice to have’ company or offer profile exercise but an increasingly essential component for business survival in a competitive market. Maybe we can market our services as a real life support system worth paying for… …