How Important is the Brand?

    February 24, 2006

I’m going to interrupt my series on Maslow & Branding to chime in on a debate between Tom Asacker and Laura Ries.

Laura says, “Building strong brands is the key to success, in our opinion, not better products or better people.” (go read the entire post for background).

Tom says, “Wow! I couldn’t agree with her . . . less.” The comments were even less kind:

“Are you kidding me Laura??? What planet are you from??? How can you brand a bad/mediocre product or service anyway? I guess she also believes advertising is the other key to success.”

Laura responds by saying,

“Is Google a ‘better’ search engine? Is Red Bull a ‘better’ energy drink? Is Microsoft a ‘better’ operating system? Or did these companies build better brands? Building a brand means standing for something in the mind of the consumer. What gets you into the mind? Usually it is by being first in a new category…”

You really need to read all the comments on these few posts to get the gist of the passion on the two sides of this debate. I’ll bite and add my two cents.

Branding is so complex and often misunderstood. The traditional view is that branding is something done by the marketing department or ad agency to position the brand in consumers’ minds, usually through advertising. Laura’s father Al Ries and Jack Trout wrote a famous book called “Positioning” that outlines this theory. It was the bible for ad agencies (and probably still is.) He wrote it back in the days when products were generally well-made, customer service hadn’t yet been outsourced, there were half the number of products on the shelves, and the pattern of releasing software too early hadn’t yet become commonplace.

Then life started speeding up; competition got faster and fiercer; outsourcing was discovered; quality started declining… but the perception was that “we can still win if we do positioning and advertising.” The dot-boom exemplified this phase: companies with no real product or business plan were spending millions on Superbowl advertising. Sure, they were first in their categories and followed all the right steps as outlined by traditional marketers. But they thought they could buy their reputations instead of earning them.

Al and Laura aren’t wrong; we can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and just focus on products and people. Marketing shouldn’t be forgotten. We need to find a balance. But their emphasis on marketing and being first unfortunately doesn’t address the core need we have today of getting back to the basics and creating something worth talking about.

That said, I think their emphasis on building a strong brand is right on… and that’s because I believe that brands are not the domain of marketing departments but of executive teams. A brand strategy is, in essence, a focused strategic platform that guides every aspect of the business. If a brand is a house, then the various departments are the rooms, and the brand platform (the brand mantra) is the foundation. Ideally the foundation sums up the purpose of the company in 5 words or less. In other words, why should people care about you?

The full brand strategy fills in the details; it’s the blueprint for the house and guidelines for interior design. The blueprint outlines the type of customers who will visit the house, how it will be used, and how the experience should differ from the other houses on the street. If the blueprint and execution are done right, marketing is simply an open-house sign in the front yard. Starbucks created a powerful brand with no advertising. Ditto with Google. They both created a new and/or better experience for people to talk about.

I think (and hope) that this is what Laura has in mind when she talks about the importance of brands. I don’t necessarily agree on the importance of being first, especially in the technology arena. Someone can come up with a great idea (Newton) but another company can quickly figure out how to do it better (Palm). And I think that marketing is partly the job of everyone in the company, not just the people who call themselves marketers. But I do agree that building strong brands is the key to success… and it involves aligning great products and great people with a great purpose to meet customers’ unmet needs.

Jennifer Rice is the founder of Mantra Brand Communication. She has extensive experience in brand/marketing strategy, market/customer research, integrated marketing communications and channel support.

Jennifer also writes theWhat’s Your Brand Mantra? blog which offers musings on branding, marketing and the ecology of business.