Will ‘Brand’ Advertising Work for You?

I love the Super Bowl ads, just like everybody else. Especially the funny ones. But it just kills me that someone is getting paid the millions of dollars shelled out on producing so much sell-no-product advertising … especially when that person getting the paycheck isn’t, well, me.

Let me back up a bit.

My intention for today wasn’t to talk about the Super Bowl ads. Rather, I wanted to talk about “brands.” Here’s the connection.

What you see in the Super Bowl advertisements is what’s called “awareness advertising.” Or, by some, “brand advertising.” Simply because, the idea goes, the commercials are intended to raise the prospect’s “awareness” of a product by stirring up all the right feelings that they hope will somehow attach themselves to the brand on offer.

Does it work?

Let me say this up front: I “get” brands. Really, I do. For instance, I’m an Apple fan. And not just a minor geek who likes the glowing logo on the back of my laptop. I’m literally one of those bug-eyed, tendon-in-the-neck, don’t-talk-to-me-about-Gates Apple nuts that you probably would think twice about inviting over for dinner.

Unless, of course, you’re an Apple fan yourself.

I’m typing this essay on a Powerbook G4. The Aluminum 15″ model. With the 1.25 GHz PowerPCprocessor, if you must know. And running OS X 10.4.4. Before this one, I used a Powerbook Titanium G4. And before that, the “Wallstreet” Powerbook. And I have a Mac Mini that I still need to set up for the office. Then there was my trusty Powerbook 5300c (trusty, that is, until it caught fire) … and my Mac Performa …

There’s the iBook I bought for my wife four years ago … and the 12″ Powerbook I replaced it with this past December. There’s my iPod (my third upgrade in four years) … and her iPod … plus, in our combined immediate families, seven more iPods, nine more Apple laptops, and eight different models of the Apple desktop, going all the way back to the Apple II+ tucked away in a closet somewhere in a house in Philadelphia.

In short, I’m a zealot. For something so unimportant in the great scheme of the Universe as a computer, no less.

So, yes, I “get” brands.

You’ll meet people who would rather eat sand than drink a Pepsi. And Pepsi drinkers who believe all Coke drinkers need their screws tightened. Some people will only stay at a Marriott. For others, it has to be the Motel 6. Still more travelers can’t sleep under any roof other than that of the Ritz. Bud is the King of Beers. Unless you’re a Miller man. Or maybe Heineken is your brand. Stephen King. John Grisham. Tom Clancy. They’re all brands, of a sort. You could sell a grocery list just by tacking one of their names at the top.

It’s no wonder every CEO aches to have their product become a celebrity “brand” of the same caliber. Hence, millions of dollars spent on ad placement in movies … on ad spots and production for commercial slots during the Super Bowl … even on renaming sports stadiums. (So instead of honoring dead community leaders, the same stadiums now honor telephone network companies and other such noble scions.)

Because when it works, brand-based advertising can be an extremely powerful thing. When it works. Trouble is, nobody is ever really sure when it will work and when it will not. Or how long it will take, even if it does. And there, dear reader, is the rub …

The great brands that work rarely work overnight. More often, their selling power is earned only after years of blood, sweat, tears, blunders, and – worse – a lot of money spent for, possibly, not as much sales in return.

Recently, I stumbled across the website for the great international advertising firm, Ogilvy & Mather.

David Ogilvy, of course, was the great British ad man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and built an empire on his classic approach to advertising. He’s no longer with us, but the agency is still around. Here’s a quote pulled from their company webpage, under the heading “An agency defined by its devotion to brands” …

“We believe in brands … more than just a goodwill entry on a corporate balance sheet, a brand is the single most important asset any company has … we believe our role is this … creating attention-getting messages that make a promise consistent and true to the brand’s image and identity. And guiding actions, both big and small, that deliver on that brand promise to every audience that brand has. At every brand intersection point. At all times.”


Do you smell something? Of course, you could read the statement above a half-dozen different ways. At least a couple of them could be defendable.

But compare that with something Ogilvy himself once said: “A good advertisement is one which sells the product without drawing attention to itself.”

Oh, and this: “The more informative your advertising, the more persuasive it will be.”

Naturally, Ogilvy said a lot of things. And more than a few of them were in total support of the brand-advertising idea, about raising awareness and creating a feeling the prospect could carry to the marketplace. But you have to wonder … would a mission statement like that really lead you to the best possible selling power for your advertising dollar? Maybe.

Then again, maybe not.

See, traditional, brand-driven advertisers understand one thing very, very well. They understand the emotional substructure of good advertising. If you don’t stir the heart, goes the reasoning, you can’t stir the pocketbook. That’s why Super Bowl advertisers will work hard – and spend millions – to leave you laughing. Or crying. Or angry.

It’s also how many mainstream ad agencies sell their own products – especially their creative services – to marketing directors and business owners. They show them campaigns that let the company feel hip, funny, crusading, or cool about themselves too.

But one thing often left out of the equation is that emotion alone can’t handle all the heavy pulling it takes to buy your brand a place in your customer’s subconscious.

A recent issue of Brandweek reported research pulled from eight different ad studies, and conducted by – would you believe it – The Center for Emotional Marketing. In the compiled analysis, ads that provoked a big emotional response had no trouble cutting through clutter. But rarely did they ever change customer buying behavior or increase a company’s market share. And these results, by the way, came from food and health companies, beauty product companies, tech and car makers, and more.

In almost no case did purely emotional advertising – which is almost exclusively the style favored by brand advertisers – build businesses.

Emotion mattered, yes. But only in ads that also informed the customer about the product. And that actually worked to tie those emotions to the product. All the better if the ad could ask for the purchase right there. Just like we do all the time in, yep, boring ol’ direct-response advertising.

So how does all this relate to brands?

The fact is, a “brand” name product can be a great asset to any company. But defining what that brand is and what it will mean to your customers is complicated. It could take years to accomplish. And other than spending millions on advertising that does little more than create an ambience around your product, there’s much more that’s much easier that you can do.

When counting your abstract assets, for instance, try putting the customer relationship AHEAD of brand on the ledger sheet. And the product? Channel money into making it the best it can be, both in quality and in the manner it satisfies your customers’ deepest desires.

Let those two things inform what you say in your ads to customers, and you might come up with a lot of ads that are neither hip nor funny. But on the balance sheet, you’ll come up with better and faster-rising sales figures than the bulk of brand advertisers, virtually every time.


copy can’t be written with tongue in cheek … you’ve got to believe in the product.” – David Ogilvy

(Ed. Note: John Forde is a board member of AWAI. To get his sharp insight into the world of copywriting, sign up for his free weekly e-zine Copywriter’s Roundtable.)