December 01, 2015

Myth: We Build Brands

The following information may sound like heresy within the advertising community, but stay tuned. Likely, this opinion is unlike any other you have studied and it may be difficult for some to accept, but rest assured that it is founded in fact. More important, it is a founding principle of Jekyll and Hyde and will remain part of the agency’s DNA. Read on.

Advertising agencies tout their successes as “brand builders,” “brand ambassadors,” “brand guardians,” or any of several other industry clichés. The truth is that they are simply finding clever ways to justify their own existence and creating a world in which accountability is nebulous and abstract. The reality is that advertising agencies are only capable of building one brand: their own.

Rephrase: “Advertising agencies do not build brands.”

Seem too counterintuitive yet? Let’s start at the beginning.

What is a brand? A brand is a company or individual that has delivered a consistent and outstanding experience to a core group of consumers who are willing to pay a premium in order to continue receiving the value they provide. Other hallmarks of real branding is that 1) the brand becomes integral to the user’s life, 2) the core users are passionate about the brand, and 3) the user is willing to adapt new products or services nearly as soon as they are introduced.

Apple is a brand. People will stand in line to buy the next iPhone, sight unseen. They wear Apple-branded shirts and put Apple decals on their cars.

Harley Davidson is a brand. Their customers live the brand’s lifestyle. Many staunch supporters derive their personal identity from the brand, even going so far as to tattoo the company’s logo on their bodies.

In today’s world, we are seeing individuals becoming brands at even greater rates than products. The reason is quite simply: To follow or admire an individual is far more natural or organic to human behavior. Individuals have characteristics and personalities which are attractive – and often are emulated in the form of shared values and behaviors. And individual brands may take many forms, whether they be entertainers, such as Elvis or Michael Jackson, or business icons, such as Steve Jobs or Elon Musk.

It is easily observable in pop culture. Consider the current 2016 presidential race: Donald Trump has branded himself outside of the election and has harnessed that power toward a political career. People already have an affinity toward (or against) him outside of the political arena and ascribe this goodwill to him as a presidential candidate. Ultimately, he controls his persona and, unlike his rivals, is not spending any of his campaigning on “getting to know you” efforts; he is already known. Much like an established musician launching a new album, it will reach number one on the charts in hours simply based on its expected value.

Brands are built by companies and individuals – not by agencies.

When we look at the example of Apple, nothing about the firm’s advertising has ever built a loyal customer. The brand’s loyalty comes from the consumer experience. It is about the design, the ease-of-use, the reliability, the customer service, the innovation, and, ultimately, the prestige and pride that comes with ownership.

The same is true of Harley Davidson. Think back. Have you ever seen or heard a Harley Davidson ad? Doubtful. Brands are built by companies delighting their customers on a daily basis. That isn’t done by advertising.

If advertising agencies don’t build brands, what do they do?

First, a correction on the brand-building myth. Agencies spend a lot of time talking about buzz words such as “brand image” and “brand building,” but are often referring to something different from the typical connotation. “Brand building,” in essence, has nothing to do with monetization, but is, at its core, “image management.”

While important, for sure, building a brand is very different from consistent messaging. Agencies should spend time dealing with image management. They should consistently redirect all conversations to the client’s core values. They should assist in managing the public-facing image of the brand. Their message should be consistent, repeatable, and enticing.

A good advertising agency is a dating service.

For those that have ever used an online dating service, this will make a lot of sense. For those who have never used an online dating service, this should also make a lot of sense.

The goal of online dating is to simply get an introduction. It is a medium by which users can get to the first date. The end. Beyond the first date, as many have learned, the relationship is no longer dependent on the online dating service. The relationship is now entirely the responsibility of the individual to provide – and this may sound a bit like a social exchange – a positive consumer experience. After the introduction and until the marriage, the courtship is “about the design, the ease-of-use, the reliability, the customer service, the innovation, and, ultimately, the prestige and pride that comes with ownership.” Sound familiar?

An advertising agency that understands its place in the business world knows this. The best highest level of output an agency can provide is to provide the greatest number of first dates for its clients (at a reasonable cost). After the “date,” however, the consumer makes the decision as to whether the product and/or experience provided enough value to continue the relationship. Without an amazing customer experience there is no brand; there is only a product/service. There may even be an identity or recognition, but there will be no loyalty. As an example, think of a company like K-mart: very high recognition, but no loyalty at all.

Without an amazing customer experience, advertising is left with the task of buying new first dates every day. Not only is this expensive, there are, eventually, not enough new users to engage. It is an unsustainable model.

Contrary to popular belief, all of the advertising in the world will not keep a bad product or service in business.

Next generation dating.

While an agency is responsible for introducing clients to new consumers and keeping their image consistent, it is also our task to partner with clients to find every opportunity to make their customers’ experiences as positive as possible. Often, the agency is privy to information or customer input which would be useful to a client. And, while we cannot run their customer service department or formulate their products, we are responsible for research and consumer feedback whenever possible. We coach our clients into good business decisions.

We manage their brand image (i.e., their dating profile pics). We define their message (i.e., their dating profile bio). We help target their ideal consumer (i.e., their most eligible match search). We clean them up and put them on display (often whispering the right answers in their ear). It is theirs to earn from their customers, however.

The first date is on us. The relationship is on them.