Is Branding B.S.?

By Sheldon Hovde

A while ago, I had one of our Sales Reps drop a book on my desk called “The Ad Contrarian – Getting Beyond the Fleeting Trends, False Goals, and Dreadful Jargon of Contemporary Advertising.” Well, with a title like that it sounded interesting enough, so I took it home, read it over, and I liked it… a lot. Without going over the book in its entirety, this particular point stuck with me:

“They go to Target today, and Wal-Mart tomorrow. They wear Nikes today, and Adidas tomorrow. They sign up for Verizon today and Sprint tomorrow. Most of their buying decisions are for specific, immediate reasons. Not for mysterious sociological, cultural, or emotional reasons. Most brands are so similar, and their so-called brand personalities are so transparently contrived, that consumers have become nearly immune to “branding.”

Here’s what that meant to me. Customer loyalty only exists until something better comes along.

If I’m taking my family on a trip, I’ll compare the 2 or 3 competing airlines we have here in Canada, find the best price, and at the click of a mouse I’m done. No amount of “branding” could have dissuaded me to do otherwise. No feel good message could have convinced me to deal only with their company regardless of price. I may prefer one over the other for various reasons. The staff may be friendlier, or the drinks may be free, but when something better comes along, I’m taking it. Done.

Now before I sit here and bash the hell out of the most widely used term in our industry “branding,” let me rewind a bit.

I’ve been to countless seminars, on Writing, Production and Sales. And every single Guru I’ve sat and watched, brought out the examples to support branding. “Name the first hamburger place that pops into your head.” Of course, the audience replies “McDonalds!” “Now, name the first Cola that you think of.” Again, the audience replies with enthusiasm “Coke!!” And there begins their reasoning for branding. If you use a branding style of advertising, of course, you’ll be top of mind. Just keep running them for long enough and you’ll win… right? They couldn’t be more wrong, and it’s sad.

 These marketing “gurus” aren’t making the case for branding, they’re making the case for having a billion dollars in the budget for marketing. There’s absolutely no comparison to McDonalds, and your local Joe Shmos’ tackle shop.

But since the Gurus brought it up (ok, I brought it up) let’s explore the “branding” of those two marketing giants. Every time you see a commercial for McDonalds they’re selling something -- their McMini sandwiches, or their coffee and muffins or whatever -- something specific, for a specific price. The objective of the ad is to boost sales for that particular product. How about Coke? Well, since Coke is by itself its own product, every ad they make is selling Coke. Maybe they’re talking about a new bottle, or how refreshing it is in summer. I suppose you could call everything they do branding because they’re selling their one and only product every single time.

Here’s the point I’m trying to make. Branding is something that happens. It’s not something you do.

So how does this relate to you and your local clients, with budgets in the hundreds or thousands? I’m going to say, remove the word “branding” from your vocabulary right now. No local business has enough cash in their pockets to rule the airwaves, run a so called “branding” campaign, and have it be nearly as effective as a well thought out, well written commercial actually selling something for them.

I remember a little while ago, I was prospecting a client for my business, and I was telling him I could create ads that would result in a much better return on his investment than what he was running currently. There was a moment or two… or three of silence, and then he replied with “But I don’t know if it’s working now. I’m just not sure if I’m going to continue with radio.” Well guess what folks, radio doesn’t work. Not if our clients with limited budgets get commercials that say, and sell, basically nothing. Put yourself in the business owner’s shoes. Imagine it’s your own money on the line. Would you write/produce differently if the ad just HAD to work?

Do “branding” campaigns have a place in local advertising? In my opinion… no. Leave it to those who can afford to play the game. You have to be selling something! Maybe it’s not a product but a giveaway. A free lesson. Whatever. But please, let’s stop the aimless, directionless advertising because either a) The Client doesn’t know what to advertise, or b) they/we have nothing to say. We may as well tell them to keep the money. My focus is to just write great ads, one at a time, and the rest will fall into place. Maybe it’ll turn into a brilliant campaign, maybe not. Now excuse me while I step off my soap box now and get back to work. A client of mine just got back from a seminar and I have some explaining to do.

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