Tripping (over) the Light Brandtastic

by Chris Kenton on April 6, 2005

I’m working on my next column on brand concepts, sifting through a lot of the complaints that have been leveled at my reductionism (that every instance of brand is, by definition, tangible).

Most of the people passionate enough to send me hate mail complain that I’m oversimplifying the complexity of marketing. Apparently, because I’m arguing that the definition of the word *brand* should be understood in its simplist form, these people make the knee-jerk assumption that I’m cynically tossing out all of the other concepts associated with brand building–like the CFO with horns and a pitch-fork that must be haunting their dreams. Is it possible that the universe can contain one core concept for brand that is concrete, and also accommodate derivative concepts that are *distinct* but arrayed around the core? Heavens no. Everything must be lumped into the vague domain of a single word. It’s like brand has become the magic bag of Felix the Cat–it can be anything you want it to be.

Others, like the letter sent to my editor at BW (the one from Gaurav Bahirvani), go a step further by mounting a defense for the soft subtlety of marketing that defies quantitative analysis:

I disagree with Kenton regarding marketers not being adept at
demonstrating return on investment. Marketing or branding is a
qualitative aspect. It is not a 2+2 sum which will give you a definite
answer. In marketing, you’re playing with emotions and human psyche,
not numbers.

Okay, let’s parse that for just a moment. He disagrees with the notion that marketers aren’t adept at proving ROI. My assumption would be that he would follow that statement by showing how, in fact, marketers are good at proving ROI. But no, he mounts the defense that marketing is about emotions and human psyche, not numbers. Which, I guess, is a proposition that marketers should be immune from having to prove ROI. Why? Because it’s too hard to give a definite answer.

As a businessman, if you’re on my payroll you need to show me why putting a dollar in your budget is a better bet than putting that dollar in the stock market–or in the lottery, for that matter. As long as marketers argue that they are entitled to immunity from quantitative performance review, simply because they’re dealing with something that is hard to measure–and that everyone else should just "get it"–they’re lemmings: they’re apparently ignorant of the tidal wave of marketing metrics and accountability measures that are sweeping through the business world. Sarbanes-Oxley anyone?

Finally, there are those who will accommodate me, grudgingly, as some curious fundamentalist. They’re not quite sure why I’m insisting on this line of argument, but they’ll grant that I’m not entirely wrong even if I’m not entirely right. The most gracious of these is over at hypocritical, which goes into some interesting detail about the mindset of marketers who are arguing against me.

Here’s the thing. He’s not wrong. He just has a different semantic
argument for his definition of the word "brand." It happens to be
completely at odds with my definition. And that, to quote , is okay.

My whole point has been that it’s not okay. And this is the heart of the problem. Please understand this. I AM NOT ASKING YOU TO AGREE WITH ~~MY~~ DEFINITION OF BRAND. And I, personally, will not countenance your creation of a NEW definition of brand. Why? I’ll be the *first* to champion a living language in which words can be created, modified, exploded–we didn’t get to 100,000+ plus words in the English language by insisting on stasis. But when you get to the point of MASS CONFUSION, you must stabilize the language you use to communicate and transfer knowledge, or you embrace intellectual oblivion.

The simple fact is that the standard definition of brand, the one that defines a brand as a symbol that sets one company’s products apart from competitors, is entirely serviceable today in 2005, and the attempts to push derivative concepts into the meaning are self-serving, egotistical and misguided–not to mention professionally suicidal.

The heart of the problem, to me, is this: Marketers have creative minds that are able to see many shades of gray. There’s a lot of value in seeing the nuances in life–it allows you to apprehend patterns, to anticipate trends before you see the numbers, to see more than those who can only see black and white. But there comes a time when so much gray becomes impossible to navigate. We talk past each other like a bunch of babbling idiots, each asserting our own spin on the grayness, our own self-congratulatory definitions. At that point it becomes necessary to step pack, to prune the vast overgrown tree and pare it down to the strongest branches.

My entire argument is that that time is now.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris Herbert April 6, 2005 at 4:28 pm

Too much time and effort on “branding” and what it might mean, should mean, does mean. “Brand-biguity my dear man”. I find myself, daily, measuring the effectiveness of my B2B marketing initiatives. In EVERY case we measure ROI. When you’re spending other people’s money they expect results…just like when you spend your own money.

Sage Osterfeld April 6, 2005 at 6:11 pm

Good God…

Obviously there’s a fair number of marketers who learned their craft at some New Age day spa where they studied marketing along with Tantric Yoga and UFOlogy.

Hey boys and girls — a brand is a concrete thing. And a brand is not the same as how people perceive or (to use a nice new age term) “feel” about a brand.

Perceptions change. Brands do not. Want proof? Enron circa 1999 and Enron today. Same brand. Totally different perceptions of the brand.

And as for everyone who’s posted an “oh it’s so hard to prove ROI on marketing” message — quit now. I have no idea what you think marketing is for, but it’s not cash redistribution. Marketing exists to generate income and if you can’t prove that whatever it is you’re doing is generating income, then you a) didn’t think about what the results of your marketing effort(s) was/were supposed to be, or b) are secretly in sales and too lazy to make calls, c) are really only qualified to run the French fryer at the local hamburger joint, but you don’t like the way you look with a hair net.

Geez…

Chris Lynn April 7, 2005 at 8:23 am

Amen to these comments. But it’s amazing how many people do not seem to understand that marketing is about creating shareholder value. I wrote about this in CMO Magazine (see http://www.cmomagazine.com/read/030105/running_numbers.html) and quoted someone who gets it as saying “CMO accountability will destroy the traditional ad agency.” As long as agency people continue to believe that it’s only about creating emotions and not about cashflow, their demise will be assured.

Chris April 7, 2005 at 9:47 am

I think it goes even a step beyond the understanding that accountability is important. There are a whole lot of agencies and marketers who see the groundswell, and understand from the pressure they’re getting to show numbers that they need to take action. But a lot of them are treating it as just another trend–like emarketing, SEO, and blogs. They learn the jargon, sprinkle “ROI” into every fifth sentence, and then go back to counting click-thrus and conversion rates.

My best advice to anyone who wants to move forward in marketing–much less keep their job–is to go to the local college and enroll in some finance classes. The transformation that is happening is real–and it isn’t about the power play of the CFO in the corner office, it’s about a fundamental change in how businesses are being valued on the open market. Because of marketing’s ability to create value from intangible assets, there is a *tremendous* opportunity for marketing to win a respected seat in the boardroom. It’s maddening and sad that *so many* marketers are letting this opportunity slip by because they’re too busy being defensive about their creative magic.

I’ve been president of a creative agency for seven years. We’ve done incredible work. But I’ll tell you right now, creativity is worthlessly subjective if you can’t demonstrate real value. Right now, the market is ruthless about determining metrics, and creativity is peripheral. You can throw a tantrum about that and shake your fists at the suits who “don’t get it”, or you can step back and try and understand what’s really happening. Businesses have undergone revolutionary changes in the past ten years, and they have to step back and figure out how they are creating value. Once the benchmarks are in place to understand how business processes are putting intangible assets into play to drive revenue, there will be a renaissence in creative, because you’ll be able to *see* the impact on the bottom line. Until then, arguing for businesses to just accept the value of creative brilliance is a losing proposition.

Rick Turoczy April 8, 2005 at 12:35 pm

First of all, since my ego is anything but abatable, thank you very much for the mention and the trackback.

Second (and of greater importance to the readers here), the more we continue this discussion, the more I appreciate where you’re going. I respect your trying to find a common definition for “brand.” And while I still have my own issues with the “concrete” versus “emotional” definitions of brand, I’ll try to explain those in a blog post, rather than muddying the water here.

Long story short, this is a great discussion. Thank you. It really has me thinking about the foundations of my stance. I am hopeful that the ongoing banter continues to challenge the definitions to which I have clung. Because that is always a good thing.

I’ll work on getting to that blog post in the near future, but only after I return from my New Age day spa. I have to meditate on the issue. And I have some UFOlogy homework. But I’m sure you concrete-types understand.

Again, please keep up the good work.

Chris April 8, 2005 at 1:21 pm

Rick, you are a credit to thinking marketers everywhere. I’ll point out that I am also guilty of what I am now railing against. I was enlightened in the middle of a philosophical discourse on the meaning of brand by an article from Heidi Schultz. I’ve only picked up the ball by virtue of the force of my conversion ( http://scribb.typepad.com/marketonomy/2005/02/what_is_a_brand.html).

Please post a trackback with your new thoughts on the subject.

/chris

Chris Lynn April 9, 2005 at 10:13 am

I think we’re in violent agreement here, but for clarity, I’d say that accountability implicitly means that marketing people need to do more than learn the financial buzzwords – they need to be accountable for financial results. So certainly, they need to understand financial analysis.

They also need more than “the benchmarks…to understand how business processes (put) intangible assets into play to drive revenue.” They need the analytical tools to be able to get meaningful data to support segmentation, and on customer lifetime value, and the effectiveness of specific campaigns. This means at least a passing acquaintance with regression analysis, hypothesis testing, design of experiments and the like. Without the ability to apply Business Intelligence, creatively-oriented marketers will always be vulnerable to the simplistic analyses of the CFO who sees only cost.

Chris April 9, 2005 at 12:01 pm

I couldn’t have said it any better myself.

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