Is ‘branding’ the new ‘digital’?

True North marketing director Sara Johnson says branding needs to be treated with more value and not ‘tacked on’ to communications briefs.

Sara Johnson

This morning I received an invitation to London Fashion Week, news of a job with a leading trend reporter, and a number of reminders of my other favourite fashion thing, the ‘brand offer’ from multi-disciplinary agencies.

Before I go any further, I am not suggesting that multi disciplinary agencies can’t do ‘brand’. There are many integrated agencies with strong digital offers, so there is no reason why an agency can’t pull in the right talent to offer branding as an additional service. It does strike me however that ‘brand’ has become the new ‘digital’.

I’m old enough to remember the early days of digital. I was working in the London office of a global agency network and watching the world panic about not being left behind. Client briefs would stress the need for a ‘digital element’ to the campaign and agencies across town were all claiming to be experts. What happened in reality was that while everyone jumped on the bandwagon, the vast majority of us churned out relatively superficial nods to the digital realm, with an animated logo here, or a banner ad there.

Friends in digital agencies looked on in dismay as of course this was superficial and relatively pointless. My attitude at the time was that digital is just a channel and should be treated as such. While I stand by this to a degree, I now recognise that digital is a channel which exposes brand behaviour to absolute scrutiny, requiring 100 per cent clarity, transparency and commitment to core values. It is a channel in which the consumer voice is far more powerful than any amount of media space you could buy. ‘Brand’ in the true sense, has never been more important.

John Lewis
John Lewis is ‘an example of a business with a clear brand proposition’

It’s ironic then that I now see agencies jumping on the ‘brand’ bandwagon in the same way that we shouted about digital all those years ago. Branding is far more than a logo and a set of visual guidelines, but it is often still being tacked onto the end of communications briefs and agency credentials as if to give them a bit more intellectual weight. The result is often more a set of similar looking pieces of creative, however beautiful, than something that can really inform how a business behaves.

Brand drives the heart of the world’s most successful organisations. John Lewis, Apple, Virgin and Disney for example, are all businesses with a clear brand proposition that not only informs how they look and communicate but how they operate, which decisions they make and how. Brand exists at the top table, within these companies giving them purpose and direction, and not as an additional responsibility of the marketing department.

So branding is more than a ‘look and feel’ in the same way that digital is more than a channel. The question though, is are people currently using branding to intellectualise tactical ideas without real substance, and if so how do we change perceptions of a practice that can truly transform business?

Sara Johnson is marketing director at True North.

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