Jumping on the brand wagon

Branding is the term now on the lips of the design and marketing cognoscenti. Richard Murray looks at four new books and finds a surprising lack of brand awareness

Branding has permeated the public consciousness as never before – Heinz, Ford, et al have been joined by Delia Smith, the City of Manchester, and even a big gas pipe called Transco. For manufacturers, brands are no longer simply a way to compete with each other. They are a company’s principle asset, something on which the balance sheet depends, and as such have become accepted as the key driving factor in most mergers and acquisitions.

From many consumers’ points of view, brands have become a constant – a security blanket in a world of change and uncertainty. The purchase of Adidas trainers is evidence of much more than an active interest in sport (the wearer’s interest may only stretch to watching the odd game of footie on TV). Whether you fly British Airways or EasyJet can say more about you as a person than your passport.

In the design industry, it has followed that new products or “handles” have emerged. Wickens Tutt Southgate has developed Brand House; Tutssels, The Brand Union; and Wagstaffs apparently calls itself Brand Partners. As the 1998 Design Week Survey is published, I wonder if we are still in the business of design – or if “brand actualisation” or “brand expression” would be more fitting. With these thoughts in mind I turned to the recent flurry of books written by industry commentators on branding, to take a, hopefully, fresh look at current thinking.

Unfortunately, much of the four books’ thinking is interchangeable, carrying as they do such similar thoughts and arguments. “Brand architecture”, “brands as financial assets” and “internationalising brands” are three of the more frequently occurring themes. Furthermore, it is fair to say that the authors, by and large, trot out the same old case histories to illustrate their points (just try doing a Coca Cola, Marlboro or IBM word count). I have to say I do appreciate and agree with most of what is written, but I’m also left wondering what is really new.

As someone whose career has centred on brands, I’ve heard a lot of the wisdom before and am guilty of a slightly jaundiced approach. This sense of déj vu, however, did force me to stop and question: why is the industry guilty of citing the same old arguments and examples? Why do we seem to find it so difficult to practice what we so eloquently preach? Where are the new hero brands grown out of this insight?

The books do come at their theories from a slightly different perspective. Fiona Gilmore’s © Brand Warriors is about securing a business’s long-term future by conquering the consumer’s heart and mind; a collection of writings by industry leaders each sharing their own story of success (though at times some of the contributors seem a little self-congratulatory – their predecessors had clearly been doing a hopeless job).

What I did like was the sense that these people had an intrinsic feel and real vision for their brand – be it turning around Asda or introducing the brave new BA identity. It left me thinking that no matter how many books on brands you may read, there is no substitute for a little marketing instinct and intuition. Are the best marketers really more entrepreneur than academic?

Susannah Hart and John Murphy’s book, Brands – The New Wealth Creators, examines brands as a source of value. Again it is a series of essays, with around half of them coming from executives at Interbrand. On balance, it is a good book because in sections it possesses a dry air of realism which appeals.

I have much sympathy for Murphy’s observation that “most brands seem concerned not with distinctiveness but with sameness, camouflaging the brand so it melds with others on the market” – exactly the subject on which I usually like to rant. Ironically, this sentiment could equally apply to the books. The “I’ve heard that before” problem is compounded by the fact that so many references are used.

For instance, in Nicholas Ind’s book The Corporate Brand there are 136 quoted sources in 170 pages, and it is easy to conclude that the book merely crochets together the theory expounded by other marketers, business writers, journalists and philosophers – even Aristotle gets a look in. Maybe that’s due to a lack of confidence in the author’s arguments. The book aims to take a more organisational perspective, looking at the broader issues facing a corporate brand: identifying audiences, measuring effectiveness and so on. It is well written, well structured, but without a glimmer of frisson.

Strategic Brand Management by Jean-No&#235l Kapferer looked so terrifying, at over 400 pages, that it nearly did not get read at all and was nearly consigned to the “long-haul-flight pile”. But I’m glad I persevered because it’s a very well written book which throbs with information, and could be a serious contender to replace Kotler as the marketing bible. In particular I liked Kapferer’s call for a reappraisal of brand management policy: “… it assumes that customers are the masters of brand identity and strategy. Consumers are quite incapable of carrying out such functions.” A thought for designers and clients alike.

I scrutinised each book thoroughly for comments on the role of design, and was highly amused that nestling in one of the 214 pages of Brands – The New Wealth Creators is a paragraph (a paragraph, mind, not even a whole chapter) called Creating Great Packaging Design. It’s really that simple folks. In Brand Warriors, edited by industry doyenne Fiona Gilmore, there are all of eight small references to design. This is hardly doing the subject justice in a world where we are forever being told brands can no longer be differentiated in pure product terms. Surely marketers in the design industry should champion design a little more, rather than hiding behind words and charts. Then we might be taken seriously.

It is ironic that an academic, Professor Kapferer, dedicates an entire section to brand identity. And it is first rate, something I’ll definitely use as reference. One colleague even said it should be available on audio cassette at service areas around the M25!

At the end of all four books, I was left questioning their target audience. Are the authors trying to stimulate and provoke a response by sharing valuable insights into a much-dissected subject? Or are they designed for marketing, business, advertising or design students? Raw graduate recruits, perhaps? Or, the cynic in me can’t help but wonder, to what extent do they function as a new-business tool (particularly the Interbrand book).

I wouldn’t dissuade my peers from reading any of these books. Each serves a function and all are highly accessible. But I would exhort would-be writers to bear in mind that, if brands are about innovation and differentiation, then so too should be books on the subject.

Apart from content, one of the biggest let-downs is that books written by, and supposedly for, creative thinkers are so visually boring and difficult to wade through. I wasn’t hoping for comic strips and pop-ups, but it’s as if the authors had their business hats pulled so far down it somehow shaded their visual sense.

Richard Murray is a partner at branding specialist Williams Murray Banks

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