Big Picture: The day branding died

Rachael Micallef
By Rachael Micallef | 10 December 2015

This article first appeared in AdNews in-print. Click here to subscribe to the AdNews magazine or read the iPad edition here.

Earlier this year, Saatchi & Saatchi global executive chairman Kevin Roberts said "brand building is dead”. Is he right?

Take an apple, put it on a table and look at it – it’s just an apple. But take that same apple and take a bite out of the side of it and it’s one of the biggest, most powerful brands on the planet.

If there's any business that knows the power of long-term brand building it’s Apple, which, since the launch of the iPod, has had a very long relationship with its brand platform. It’s what makes fans line up around the block overnight to buy a new release iPad and is what allowed it to live through 'Bendgate'.

But in a world of fast moments and measurable creativity where marketers are vying for their very own 'Oreo cookie moment’, brands like Apple, which are instantly recognisable, are becoming rare. Brand building is being left behind in favour of tactical activity and quick wins.

M&C Saatchi Australia chief strategy officer Justin Graham says he doesn’t think the need for a big idea is dead, but that the industry's focus on it might be.

“It feels like great brand building is somewhat of a dying art,” Graham says.

“A lot of people throw out this term of ‘brand platform' but a lot of agencies aren’t going out and interrogating what a brand platform means.”

Is it time to rewrite the marketing rule book? In a world moving at the speed of culture, and a culture moving at the speed of light, is there room, or a need, for a big idea?

Give me my Uber

BWM is an agency built on its promise to create long-standing brands, but its three managing partners, Rob Belgiovane, Paul Williams and Jamie Mackay, all think the industry's focus has shifted – at the expense of brands.

“The perception has emerged that you can create some idea seeded in social one morning and it's going to create a huge brand,” Belgiovane says. “It takes a lot more than that. But time and again we meet marketing directors who say 'give me my Uber'.”

But Belgiovane says the good brands out there, using Commbank and Apple as examples, still know the value of long-term thinking, but when was the last time you saw it, or worked on it?

Qantas rebuilt its brand this year with its ‘Feels Like Home’ brand work, created by Neil Lawrence, and CommBank’s CAN platform is still going with recent ads by M&C Saatchi, bringing a nostalgic edge. Clemenger BBDO Australia creative chairman, James McGrath, says that that there is less great brand thinking, but equally, there is less great thinking in general.

“There is a real hole in big thinking and it's not just an Australian phenomenon, it's a global one,” McGrath says.

“Ideas in general have sort of disappeared."

But Ogilvy Brisbane executive creative director, Jonathan Drapes, sees it a little differently: every experience with a brand impacts that brand, so in a way, there is always brand building going on. In addition, with all of the different ways that consumers can be reached in a digital world, he says there is more brand building going on than ever before – it's just in a different style.

“The issue is what sort of brands are being built,” Drapes said. “For the most part, I’d say not particularly sustainable ones.”

So, it comes back to a definition of what is brand building, and what is tactical, and then how the two fit together.

Let them eat cake

JWT Sydney GM, Jenny Willits, says “on the face of it, you could easily say 'yes, brands are neglecting brand building',” but that's simplybecause we’re not seeing as much dedicated brand advertising.

“If you get the right creative idea driving all your communications then you can have your cake and eat it too," she adds.

Landor Associates Sydney MD, Dominic Walsh, disagrees that brand building is dead – mdepending on how you define it.

“There is less happening in a communications sense,” he says. “But there is still a lot of brand building – it's just more tactical execution of how the business operates. So it's a big shift.”

The internal workings of a business have always been central to building a brand, according to Belgiovane. He points to the agency's work on the Bank of Queensland, most renowned for its tagline 'It's possible to love a bank' which was actually an inside out rebrand.

The agency worked on building the brand through employees, products and services long before the public saw an advertising campaign.

“If you get the brand platform right you can still launch a brand on a beer coaster and it will still be better than the best digital media strategy in the history of the universe,” Belgiovane says.

But Graham believes the real benefit of brand building is it allows agencies to use different channels yet still make an impact on the business.

“You can start to get into disparate areas like innovation and you can cut back to the brand platform to provide a springboard to jump off, as opposed to just doing interesting things that don’t really mean anything,” Graham says.

Beyond tactical

Brand building comes back to a purpose or a vision – what a brand stands for, not just what it's trying to sell. Without that, everything a brand does becomes transactional or reactive. And with the level of exposure on social media, it can be difficult for brands to have a meaningful interaction with people that goes beyond that.

“You don't really know what is driving the organisation if you don’t have a purpose,” McGrath says. “You end up telling people things in the wrong language.”

He says inevitably brand building tends to come from a more emotional place, through film or TV, rather than tactical social posts.

Brand building is essential – it's not a “one or the other” situation when it comes to tactical work. But how to remind marketers of its importance is tricky.

“There is a time and place for tactical executions and, if done right, they can do as much for brand building as anything else,” Drapes says. But Williams says the tactical only works with a branding foundation in place.

“It's very easy for clients to blow a lot of money on a lot of peripheral stuff without getting the main game sorted. Most clients, when you actually have that conversation, gravitate back to the brand. You can only do tactical brilliance when you've got a strategy in place,” he says.

Walsh believes going forward, more businesses need to think long-term to get the best out of their marketing. “There is a great need for more brands to better understand what it means yo build long-term brand equity and to think beyond the next 12 months,” he says.

“Look at the brands that are really successful – they move beyond tactical and to long-term vision and long-term innovation.”

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