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6 truth bombs about brand building

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“I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next ten years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next ten years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two – because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time…”

The above quote from Jeff Bezos applies as well to brand building as it does to building a business. Very frequently, caught in the frantic pace of daily work, brand builders and marketers lose sight of some basic truths of brand building that can potentially simplify their lives and amplify their campaign outcomes.

Let’s get into a few of these tenets that are as true today as they were in the pre-internet era.

1. Branding is subtraction

If a product has multiple features, marketers often feel tempted to talk about each of them. They feel that this would build an impenetrable moat for the brand as ‘owning’ all attributes would block out the competition. As good as it may sound, this reasoning is flawed. Complex messaging only confuses customers, leading to subpar outcomes.

It’s counterintuitive, but building a strong brand requires learning the art of letting go.

Marketers need to give a long and hard look at product benefits and eliminate anything that seems redundant- features that even competition can equally claim, features that are complicated or confusing, and features that are irrelevant to the consumer. What’s left would be the core essence of the brand- that one thing the brand can uniquely own.

Maurice Saatchi, the pioneering founder of Saatchi & Saatchi, had put it succinctly: “The strongest brands are defined by their ownership of one thought; the very strongest by one word” ¹

This principle also extends to brand activations, where there is a tendency to do multiple things. The right approach is to ‘Do few things but do them well’- this will not only help to optimize resources but also create a stronger consumer impact.

2. Advertising is truth well told

In 1912, Harry McCann opened an advertising agency (today known as McCann-Ericksen) with the tagline- “The Truth Well Told”. Though the marketing and brand-building landscape has seen a seismic shift since then, this adage remains as valid as it was 110 years ago. Bereft of all jargon, brand building is all about telling the product truth in the most compelling way.

Product Experience remains the most critical moment of truth. A marketing campaign can only bring it alive in an interesting manner; it cannot spin it or bend it. Overclaims or over-the-top promises will only result in consumer disappointment. This would sooner or later reflect in the commercial metrics of the brand.

Overpromising might deliver initial traction, but it could also lead to a huge post-purchase regret that can potentially prove suicidal. A case in point is Indian Ed-tech, esp. in the K-12 segment. While initial advertising and messaging of many start-ups in this space enticed consumers by setting up almost unrealistic expectations, not living up to the promises resulted in immense consumer dissonance.

3. Brief is a marketers' sounding board

With marketers getting busier by the day, taking time out to write a thought-through marketing brief sounds like a bureaucratic task- an avoidable bottleneck in the busy project plan of a communication launch. Some marketers do away with it altogether, preferring instead to ‘brief’ the agency on call, verbally sharing the requirements. Some others go through the motions- quickly filling in a template and shooting it off to the agency, with the satisfaction of having ticked it off their to-do list.

Contrary to the popular perception, a brief is not just an external document to be shared with an agency; it is a critical internal document too. Writing a brief is an opportunity for brand managers to pause, reflect and reaffirm the purpose of communication- not to the agency but to themselves and their internal stakeholders. Besides, an honest and well-written brief gives enormous clarity to everyone in the organization about business objectives that the marketing campaign can meet and those which it cannot, thereby avoiding a lot of heartburn and blame-game later.

4. If it's not done right, it isn't done

Marketers today have a bias for action. However, as a flipside, we are also losing sight of another time-tested marketing principle- if it isn’t done right, it isn’t done. Very often, we come across marketers who dismiss an idea or an activity because ‘it was tried before and it didn’t work for our consumer’ or because ‘our consumers don’t resonate with this’. Both these assertions rest on two assumptions- first, the brand spent adequate resources and gave enough time to the activity to deliver results. Second, what didn’t work then, won’t also work now. Both of these may be wrong.

It is important to remember that every activity needs a certain scale, resources and time to deliver results. Unless it has been done in the way it ought to be done, it is wrong to pronounce the verdict. For instance, declaring a billboard campaign a failure because the brand installed 3 or 4 billboards and the coupon code mentioned on them didn’t register any redemptions within 48 hours is silly. If offer redemption is the intent, billboard might be the wrong activity in the first place.

When it comes to execution, just ticking the box and calling it ‘Done’ isn’t done unless the activity has been executed with due rigour.

5. Optimize message before media

A lot of time in campaign planning is dedicated to optimizing media. And for good reason. After all, media monies are the largest component of a campaign budget. Agencies and clients sweat over the finer details- discussions around TRPs, ad-edits, time of airing etc., hog the limelight.

However, the problem arises when in all this frenzy of execution, we forget that message is the real hero. A great media plan with a suboptimal message would create little impact and, sometimes, could even be detrimental to the brand.

So, before we get down to optimizing the media plan, it makes sense to vet the message we are going to communicate carefully. Is it rooted in a strong consumer insight? Is the brand USP clearly communicated? Is the key consumer takeaway unambiguous and clear? Unless a brand is sure it has got these parts right, no amount of media optimization will help.

6. The laws of Compounding apply on Creativity too

We often hear about the power of creativity in brand building. A great campaign backed by a product that delivers can do wonders for the brand. But the problem is that the secret ingredients of enduring campaigns- the power of consistency and compounding- are often underestimated and underleveraged.
Often brands change track and move away from a successful campaign. The typical reasons cited for this include- ‘because we need to keep the brand fresh’, and ‘because we have done this long enough’. The real problem is marketers get bored with their own campaigns much before consumers. The way to tackle this is to induce ‘Fresh Consistency’ in every chapter of the brand’s storytelling.

Fresh Consistency is the art of creative storytelling that consistently reinforces the brand’s core proposition with every successive campaign. The power of fresh consistency has been time and again illustrated by iconic campaigns that have refreshed communication without changing the core brand idea. Daag Acche Hain campaign by Surf is a great example.

In Conclusion

The more things change, the more they remain the same. In today’s fast-paced marketing world, where things are often viewed with a transactional lens, following these time-tested principles can give you an edge. Do you have a principle to add to the list? Do let us know in the comments section below.


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