Bob Hoffman
Mar 31, 2020

Branding and grandstanding

THE AD CONTRARIAN: Brand babblers seem to think that every business problem is a branding problem.

(Shutterstock)
(Shutterstock)

I sometimes listen to branding "experts" talk and wonder if they live on the same planet I do. I hear them say...

  • Consumers want to “join the conversation” about brands.
  • Consumers want to co-create with brands.
  • Brands need to create communities of engaged consumers to be successful.
  • Consumers want a relationship with brands.
  • Consumers want brands that align with their values.

I suspect that the more these branding experts can link "branding" to business success, the more of a market they are creating for their services.

First of all, I don't like the word branding. It's like so many words in the dreadful lexicon of marketing -- far too open to interpretation to mean anything specific. There is nothing stupid you can do with a logo that can't be excused as "branding."

Yet, despite my misgivings about branding "experts," I believe that creating a well-known, desirable brand is the highest achievement of advertising. So what the hell are we talking about here? Let's do a little thinking.

As stated above, creating a well-known, desirable brand is the highest attainment of advertising. There are people who would disagree and say that creating a best-selling product is advertising's highest attainment. They are wrong. Advertising alone cannot create a best-selling brand or product. There are far too many elements in marketing, and business in general, that influence product sales. Advertising cannot affect product quality, distribution, pricing, product design, etc. As Mark Ritson often points out, marketing is a lot more than communication.

In the long run, no amount of brilliant advertising and its concomitant brand value can overcome a shitty, ugly product that tastes bad, is hard to find and is unaffordable or unprofitable.

And yet brand babblers seem to think that every business problem is a branding problem. They rattle on and on about the power of "the brand" until you want to shoot yourself. Or them. They inflate the importance of what they do and disguise their ignorance of the complex nature of business success, behind a vague, non-specific curtain - the magical mystery module of "branding."

Many well-known and respected brands have died ignominious deaths (e.g., Polaroid, Oldsmobile, Kodak) -- not necessarily because their "branding" sucked, but because either their products couldn't cut it anymore, or they fell behind the competition, or their financials were cockeyed, or some non-communication aspects of their marketing strategy were inadequate.

To wit, I suspect that one of the economic consequences of the current CV tragedy will be the demise of several "major brands" who have been living on investor money instead of operational income.

Successful "branding" can help make a product more desirable and it can raise the perceived value of a product. In general it can raise the likelihood that a business or product will be successful.

Yes, creating a desirable brand is the highest achievement of advertising, but...

No, creating a desirable brand is not nearly a guarantee of business success.

There are a lot of contingencies in creating a successful business. There are nuts and bolts, and wind, rain, and snow, and salt and pepper, and a little of this and a lot of that.

Despite the implications and assertions of brand babblers, in no way does successful "branding" lead inexorably to a successful business. Getting "the brand" right is a significant component of marketing success, but you gotta get a whole lot of other things right first.


Bob Hoffman is the author of four best-selling books about advertising, a popular international speaker on advertising and marketing, and the creator of 'The Ad Contrarian' newsletter and blog, where this post first appeared. Earlier in his career he was CEO of two independent agencies and the US operation of an international agency. His latest book, 'Advertising For Skeptics', is now available.

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