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The five symptoms of malaise of consumer-led brands.

We live in a world of consumer-led brands. We are surrounded by them – in the supermarket, at the service station, in our shopping malls, in our homes, on our TVs. There is an easy familiarity to them, a kind of ready-made acceptability, even when these brands are brand new. The colours are attractive, the packs feel right in our hands, the fragrances beckon, the flavours are yummy and unchallenging, the personalities are as disarming as a smile. We walk into an unfamiliar brand of hotel, one we have never experienced before, and immediately feel a sense of déjà-vu. We sit in a new car and it almost feels like a friend. We watch a TV commercial and see our own lives, only better, hum along to a 30-second blast of one of our all-time favourite tracks, enjoy the little twist we know will be there at the end, and file that clever slogan away with all the others that sound, well, just a little bit like it, just so, just the kind of thing we expected.

In the world of consumer-led brands there aren’t too many shocks or surprises. How should there be? Consumer-led brands have gone beyond the mere understanding of our needs to co-opt our collective consciousness into the very design and substance and atmosphere of the brand itself. With our help, these brands have expunged all traces of their own corporately-derived awkwardness, moderated their idiosyncrasies, and smoothed out their quaint bumps and imperfections, so that they engage us like one of those photos of a human face that is, in fact, a composite of all the faces we find most attractive. Consumer-led brands want us to want them, and they take the most direct route possible. These brands say to consumers: we can be anything you want us to be. Just tell us what it is, what features you want, what personality you like, what values you favour. Tell us, tell us, tell us.

Emblematic of this quest to get straight to the heart of consumer desire is the exponential growth of the consumer research industry. In 1993, just over $7 billion was spent on consumer research worldwide. By 2001 it had grown to $16 billion, a 6% increase on the previous year. Three quarters of that money was spent in Europe and the US, just 13% in Asia, despite its mighty population. But with Asian markets exploding, and capitalism assurgent, that proportion will rise fast and help to swell the total pot to an estimated $25 billion by 2008. Thanks to the modern brand, consumer research is one of the world’s most buoyant industries.

There is an irony, then, that this same industry should harbour some of the clues that all is not well. Consumer research is not simply a stream of information that flows one way, from the consumer, via the research company to the brand owner. Information also collects in vast pools and reservoirs, created and tended by the research industry itself, and in these depths can be observed the underlying currents and eddies that cannot be perceived at the surface, at the level of the single brand. The world’s biggest reservoir of consumer information is owned by the marketing services group WPP, and managed by Millward Brown, one of the world’s largest consumer research companies. Called BrandZ™ (pronounce that Brand-Zee) it constitutes a database of over 23,000 brands, updated constantly through fieldwork with over 700,000 people in 30 countries. It is to this database that we were allowed privileged access in order to explore and corroborate some of the themes of this book. Since two of its proprietary metrics – Voltage and Bonding – are relevant to several of the symptoms of malaise in this chapter, we give a brief overview of them here.

 

The predictive power of BrandZ™

 

BrandZ™ measures the relative strengths of brands within their category. It generates, for any given brand, a Brand Pyramid™ like the one below. At the bottom of the pyramid is Presence, an indication of the number of consumers whose contact with the brand extends no further than knowledge of its existence. At the top of the pyramid is Bonding, an indication of the number of consumers who have a relationship with the brand that runs deep enough to inspire loyalty.

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Figure 2.1 BrandDynamics™ Pyramid

The vigour with which a brand manages to convert consumers up the pyramid is captured in a one-digit number called Brand Voltage™. A small brand could have high Voltage, and a big brand low Voltage. It’s the rate of conversion all the way up to the top that matters. If brand A starts with a Presence figure of 25 and brand B with 75, but they both end up with a Bonding figure of 9, it is Brand A that has the higher Voltage.

Voltage is interesting to us for two reasons. The first is that it exhibits a proven, positive correlation with future brand share. Thousands of data inputs across hundreds of brands have corroborated this relationship. The higher the Voltage score, the greater the chance that the brand will grow its share in the coming year. The lower the Voltage score, the greater the chance that the brand will shrink.

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Figure 2.2 A proven link between Brand Voltage™ and future market share

Given this predictive power, the constituent factors that determine Voltage must interest us too. What are the brand qualities that drive consumers up the pyramid into that box at the top? Well consumers can be bought with very low prices. But this is hardly the most attractive route to future share growth. There are four more qualities that count, and they would figure on any marketer’s wish-list: Leadership (challenging the status quo); Difference (standing for something unique); Affinity (being rationally strong and emotionally warm); and Fame (dominating by sheer salience). But on all of these, as we shall show, consumer-led brands are vulnerable. It is this chain of reasoning, this proven link to future share, that justifies the word ‘symptoms’ rather than simply ‘characteristics’ for what we are about to describe.

 

Symptom #1: An increased similarity between brands.

Brands that canvass and act on consumer opinion must at some point confront a sobering reality: in any one category, at any one time, consumers will articulate the same desires, needs, preferences and whims. Therefore the more literally – and, from the consumer’s point of view, satisfactorily – the brand translates these desires into reality, the greater the danger that it will fall into line with other brands in the same sector, or the same niche of the same sector. This is the one potential flaw in the Terry Leahy school of argument; if Tesco does indeed simply follow the consumer – and there are reasons for supposing that things are not quite that basic – then the competitive advantage lasts only as long as his rivals choose not to do so. The consumer’s voice is there for anyone who’ll listen, and it will tell Asda the same thing as it tells him. Consumers are not interested in preserving the differences between brands; they are interested in getting what they want.

At a category level, therefore, what we see is brands collectively satisfying consumer desires and exhibiting values and associations that please them. The petroleum industry that Levitt originally singled out for opprobrium, for example, today drills for consumer insights as enthusiastically as it drills for oil, spending an estimated $200 million per year on consumer research. Viewed as a category it says all the right things about the environment, boasts a strong Corporate Social Responsibility commitment and provides the basics people want: efficiently run, clean and convenient service stations.

At the level of any single brand, however, success derived from following consumers is bought at the price of convergence, unless the brand has the courage to filter consumer opinion though its own, necessarily strong, culture, and create solutions that are far more imaginative and challenging than those offered by its competitors. In the petroleum category, as in so many others, no such hero brand has emerged. All are saying and doing the much the same kind of thing, values are interchangeable, prices are virtually identical and competitive differences few. These brands coalesce around what Kevin Keller calls the sector ‘points of parity’ – the must-haves, features and associations that serve to provide consumers with a frame of reference for the category. But what brands also desperately need, if they are to score on the BrandZ dimension of Leadership, is points of difference. In consumer-led brands, these are becoming ever more rare.

The tendency for brands to converge is seen with more gladiatorial drama when just two brands dominate a category, a not infrequent occurrence. The $1.4 billion German soups and convenience foods market provides an example. Just two brands – Knorr and Maggi – account for 65% of the market. In terms of everything that makes a brand a brand – product performance, range, distribution, usership base, values and associations – these brands are very evenly matched. Similarities abound, differences are few and slight. Both make a range that extends from soups and bouillon cubes to salad dressings and meal-makers. Both favour vibrant house colours for packs and communications: Maggi is red and yellow, to put the colours in order of dominance, Knorr is green and yellow. On the packs you’ll see similarly sized, similarly appetising, shots of the cooked finished dish to which the product contributes. The overlap in product offer is matched by the overlap in user base, which hovers around the 90% mark. In other words, 90% of the homes that have one brand will also have the other. This seeming ambivalence toward precise choice of brand was illustrated anecdotally in 2004 by a researcher exploring brand preference outside a German supermarket. She approached a couple and asked them what had driven their choice of the Maggi stock cubes visible in their shopping baskets. “Oh,” came the reply, “did we buy Maggi? I thought we’d bought Knorr. Oh well.”

The lay observer might look at these brands and simply draw the conclusion that they continually copy one another, that their convergence is due to mutual obsession; what one does today, the other does tomorrow, so that they end up entwined around each other like two strands of the DNA molecule’s iconic double helix. There is some truth in this, but only some; big, competitive brands do of course keep a constant eye on each other, and cannot allow breakthroughs to go unchallenged. But these brands, and others like them, would tend to be drawn together even if blind to one another’s activities, for they both dance to the same tune, and it is that of the consumer. Both Knorr and Maggi carefully monitor consumer trends in eating and general lifestyle, both carefully test new product concepts and the formulations that follow them, and both canvass consumer opinion on the fine details of pack design, right down to nuances like how deep the meatballs should be submerged in the tomato sauce in the picture of the finished dish. From the consumers, in turn, the brands are getting similar answers, and it is leading to similar solutions on the shelf.

Convergence in communications

Recognising the inevitability of convergence at the substantive product level, consumer-led brands look to communications to signal a difference. After all, while product ingredients like wild mushrooms and saffron, say, are available to any brand with the expertise to use them, the company’s own culture and heritage is unique to itself. Communications, by tapping into this unique set of internal values can offer consumers an attractive way to differentiate between otherwise similar brand offers. So the argument goes.

In reality, to the resigned dismay of advertising creative teams all over the globe, marketers also turn to consumers for input on communications planning and, in any one sector, consumers are pretty consistent on what they like. Any advertising copywriter or art director with more than a few years’ experience will be able to recite by heart the list of interchangeable adjectives that accompany the brief for a brand in any given sector; in fmcg, for example, it will invariably include notions like: natural, vital, appealing, bright, vibrant, open, and sociable. The advertising ideas that emerge from these briefs are then passed through the filter of consumer approval so that they, too, tend to converge with the others in the same, or related, sectors.

Why is convergence an issue, one might ask, for a pair of brands that between them have two-thirds of a billion dollar market? In that context, does specific brand loyalty really matter? Isn’t it better to maintain an uneasy truce with your main competitor and stand together against others in the sector who are seeking to take share? In fact the threat comes from outside the immediate sector. It is the power of the retailer that threatens big established brands and it is the very tendency of these brands to converge around nice, tightly-grouped points of parity that makes it so easy for own-label to copy them. In Germany own-label, at about 25%, is relatively small but it is growing fast. In the UK and US, it accounts for 50-60% of fmcg sales and it is in precisely those sectors where differentiation between the leaders is weak that it enjoys greatest success. As the INSEAD academics Judith and Marcel Corstjens remark in their book Store Wars (1995), the characterful ‘eponymous brands’ like Marmite or Twix, with their strong emotional brand loyalty, are the ones the retailers find it hard to emulate.

Few sectors are immune from the power of retailer brands where consumers display emotional ambivalence towards the leaders. Look at the banking sector in the UK, for example. The big, traditional bank brands converge with almost perfect cohesion around the sector points of parity, offering virtually identical products and services, at virtually identical rates, and seeking to reassure consumers in communications about the same kinds of issues like security and financial complexity. These banks got where they are by listening to consumers but those very consumers now shrug and say, ‘Banks are all the same’. Emotional affinity to any one is markedly low. This has provided the opportunity for retailer brands like Sainsbury’s and Tesco to leverage the consumer trust they enjoy, and offer an attractive alternative to the traditional banks simply by copying the points of parity to which they all so conveniently cleave. These same retailer brands are making inroads into the petrol, telecoms and insurance markets, too, and you have to wonder what’s next.

For any given brand to survive and thrive in this context, it needs to foster true, emotional brand loyalty with consumers. To achieve that it will need to find, at the very minimum, less literal, more inspiring, ways to turn their desires into brand reality. The alternative – convergence around sector points of parity – is growing more dangerous by the day.

 

Symptom #2: An inconsistent brand image and offer.

Following the consumer might seem like sound advice in principle but it can lead to a merry old dance in practice. Consumers don’t live their lives in a straight line. They are human so they are fickle. As Rebecca Wynberg puts it, “Consumers can tell you what they did yesterday; they can’t tell you what they are going to do tomorrow”. Actually it’s worse than that; they can tell you passionately and categorically what they intend to do tomorrow, but there is no guarantee that they will actually do it, and a sporting chance that they will do the precise reverse.

For marketers the constantly moving target makes for a life of finely balanced decisions. To ignore consumer trends completely is to eventually become a blind brand, out of touch with real people in the real world. On the other hand, to react to every capricious wish and whim is like negotiating a choppy sea in a small boat: the brand is tossed about with abandon and it’s an uncomfortable and dangerous ride.

The distinction to keep in mind, of course, is that between tactics and strategy, with change at the former level acceptable only insofar as it contributes to stability at the latter. As Kevin Keller writes in Strategic Brand Management (1998), ‘Being consistent in managing brand equity may require numerous tactical shifts and changes in order to maintain the strategic thrust and direction of the brand.’ What can make consumer-led brands so flaky, however, is their propensity to allow the attitudinal and behavioural volatility of consumers to exert undue influence directly at the strategic level.

A poignant example is the suncare brand Uvistat which, until 1990, enjoyed a small but profitable niche in the $230 million European suncare sector. Uvistat’s heritage and expertise – built up over 46 years – was at the protection end of the business. It was a brand for people with sensitive skin, or for those who were uncomfortable with too much sun. Having spent years as a prescription-only brand, it had recently become available as a self-select brand in pharmacies and looked forward to a somewhat broader consumer franchise.

It’s hard to imagine now, but as the ‘80s gave way to the ‘90s the suncare market was characterised by tanning values and dominated by tanning brands. Most people didn’t care about protection, they cared about a sexy tan, and brands like Bergasol and Hawaiian Tropic built huge shares by promising a deeper, darker colour faster. Ambre Solaire’s slogan was ‘Deep tanning technology’. Nivea claimed, ‘The loveliest tan under the sun.’ 90% of volume was in SPF factors lower than 6, the point where Uvistat’s range got going. In those pre-health-scare days mainstream consumer attitudes to brands like Uvistat were along the lines of, ‘Don’t spoil my holiday fun’. At first Uvistat dealt with this resistance at a sensibly tactical level, by developing a communications programme which was sensitive to people’s attitudes while alerting them to the dangers of too much sun.

Brand growth was good enough for the campaign to win an industry effectiveness award but not good enough for the brand’s owners, Boehringer Ingelheim, who felt the protection niche to be too constrained. Against all professional advice they reacted to prevailing consumer attitudes at the strategic level, and opted for a mainstream positioning as a tanning brand, moving into lower SPFs and talking the language of tanning in their new advertising campaign. Consumer attitudes, though, proved to be fickle as the skin cancer publicity took hold and people started to place their desire for a tan on a lower priority than their desire not to die. Almost overnight the market lurched away from tanning towards protection. When Uvistat tried to scramble back to its old positioning much of its credibility, and all of the built-in impetus it should have enjoyed, had gone. Today it has a 2.2% share.

You could argue that Uvistat just got unlucky, that timing and circumstances intervened in what would otherwise have been a reasonable attempt to play in a bigger market. We would argue that to abandon a brand’s heritage and long-term strategy is to become a hostage to fortune, and that the voice of consumers can be like that of the sirens of Greek mythology: seductive but deadly.

Not all examples are quite that cut and dried, of course. More typical is the tendency for previously clearly defined brands to simply blur their strategic edges in the pursuit of fickle consumer obsessions. The 2004 spa phenomenon in the bath and body brands sector is instructive. Testing new product ideas with consumers at concept stage had convinced many brand owners that the world of the spa was the place to be. Consumers, for their part, were ready for the spa mood thanks to a combination of editorial coverage, celebrity usage of exclusive world spas and the trend towards an ever-busier lifestyle, prompting the desire for the kind of relaxation that spa values bring. The result was a rush of spa line-extensions and sub-brand launches from players like Palmolive, Nivea, Dove, Ponds, FCUK, and numerous retail brands including M&S and Boots. For some of these brands, responding to this new consumer desire at a tactical level made sense since spa values could be seen to fit well with long-term brand strategy. But more questionable was the fit between the values of the spa and the family values of the Palmolive brand, for example, or the extrovert, street-fashion positioning of FCUK. For these brands, an inconsistent brand image looks to be the price paid for a place in an attractive, though crowded, consumer-led sector. But since consistency is one of the defining characteristics of powerful brands, this is not an inconsequential price to pay.

Our first two symptoms of malaise are each serious enough in isolation. More serious still, as the spa example shows, is the tendency for brands to display them in combination. The result is that the very fundamentals of good branding become reversed. Brands are meant to be consistent within themselves and different from their competitors. Consumer-led brands gradually become inconsistent within themselves and similar to their competitors. It is not something consumers give too much thought about, apart from the odd critical aside, but for marketers it is a worrying sign of the erosion of saliency and brand fame.

 

Symptom #3: A lack of real innovation and surprise.

Consumer-led brands, by definition, have blunted their power to surprise. Their tendency to ask before they offer, reflecting both a genuine desire to please and an understandable fear of making mistakes, disqualifies them from knocking our socks off. By communing so earnestly with consumers about what they want from the brand or the sector they tether creativity to the limits of the average person’s imagination. Many brands do dare to think differently, on paper at least, but if they do not dare to act before they ask they will frequently find their inventiveness rebuffed in consumer groups; in these gatherings of instant opinion, where the herd instinct is never far away, innovations that challenge rarely make it beyond the stage of initial shock.

The University of Chicago’s Professor William I. Zangwill, author of Lightning Strategies for Innovation (1998), lists some of the products that would not exist if early consumer reactions had been taken to heart. They include styling mousse (‘goopy and gunky’ was the verdict in initial market tests), the telephone answering machine (using a mechanical device to answer the phone was felt to be disrespectful and rude) and the computer mouse. The British design guru Wally Olins, in his book On Brand (2003), tells the story of the inauspicious beginnings of the now highly successful Bailey’s Irish Cream liqueur. Tom Jago, the new product development expert behind the brand, reveals that when it was researched in focus groups it received a ‘unanimous negative response. They hated the stuff and didn’t believe it was Irish or even real. We suppressed the results.’

It is no different in the business-to-business arena. The Harvard academics Bower and Christensen, in their work on disruptive technologies (1995), list the factors that deter leading companies from investing sufficiently in the technologies that the customers of the future will demand. Chief among them is the fact that they talk to the customers of today. Citing the failure of companies like IBM, Xerox and Bucyrus-Erie to maximise the disruptive innovation originating under their own roofs, the Harvard pair warn against focusing on the attributes that mainstream customers historically value. Rather, it is new customers that point the way forward. ‘At first, then, disruptive technologies tend to be used and valued in new markets or applications; in fact they generally make possible the emergence of new markets.’ Eventually the new technologies do gain acceptance among the mainstream customers that first rejected them – but by this stage the companies that first developed them have frequently lost their initiative to others. It is, as Bower and Christensen phrase it, one of the ‘dramatic dangers of staying too close to customers’.

But let’s approach this issue from other side, and look for a moment at companies that do have a record of successful brand innovation. How do they achieve it? Do they test it? What is their view on the consumer’s involvement at the fragile early stages of a new idea?

Emirates, the international airline of Dubai, is an example of rapid-fire innovation. Among its many ‘firsts’ were on-board phones, personal video systems in Economy, choc-ices with the movie, and an external camera so passengers could watch themselves take off and land. Its most recent innovation is the fully-enclosed ‘pod’ for its First Class passengers. Inside this ‘cabin within a cabin’, with its electronic sliding doors, room-service consul and private mini bar, passengers feel like they are in a flying hotel suite. Perks of travel in the pod can include a massage from the seat, and a choice of 500 channels of entertainment from a hand-held, icon-driven screen.

None of these innovations was tested with consumers before implementation. The pod concept went straight into development from a sketch on the back of an envelope. As the airline’s chief executive Tim Clark explains, “We know what customers want, and we use the experience of our own people to assess new ideas. If we tested innovations every time with a posse of consumers, we would lose the initiative. We prefer to back our judgement.”

In this he is in good company. Sony’s Akio Morita, in his book Made in Japan (1987), evokes the notion of an ‘Oriental sixth sense’ to describe the Japanese approach to innovation. Morita himself was the inspiration behind the Walkman and its most impassioned supporter in face of early scepticism, yet he candidly puts it all down to ‘a hunch’. It was a hunch he was prepared to back to the limit, as he made clear to his doubting colleagues: ‘If we don’t sell 100,000 pieces by the end of the year, I will resign my chairmanship of this company.’

Sixth sense, instinct, hunch, courage – to judge from the example of the Walkman, these are the qualities that make for profitable innovation. But we have strayed into the realm of argument by anecdote, and must be wary of accepting too uncritically the winner’s-eye view of the world. There is always a danger in drawing inference from a starting point of success: it doesn’t take into account the alternative outcomes that were only too possible at the outset. For every hunch that leads to the Walkman there are hundreds that lead to oblivion, and the losers tend to keep their anecdotes to themselves. Innovation implies risk. Brand marketing companies know this so they try to minimise it by checking with consumers as they go. It’s not an unreasonable thing to do in order to win a little extra certainty, as long as they can live with the downside.

And there is a downside. In the end, consumer-led brands are a bit like the life-partner who asks you what you want for your birthday, with the intention of getting it for you. This most sensible and adult of arrangements immediately makes two things certain: 1. You will not end up with something you do not want; 2. You will not, on unwrapping your gift, experience the bittersweet thrill of surprise. It is a trade-off in which something has been gained by all parties but something perhaps more valuable has been lost. Surprise, even challenging surprise, is a powerful factor in our sense of feeling alive, a glimpse back to the vivid emotional clarity of childhood and, if we are lucky, a contributor to a capacity for zest that we never lose. Marketers should remember the answer Bob Hope is reported to have given, in his final days, when asked whether he wished to be buried or cremated: “Surprise me”.

 

Symptom #4: An increasing gulf between brand offer and brand capability.

Consumers know a great deal about themselves; they do not know a great deal about your company, even if they think they do. They do not understand the limits of its capability, the strength of its financial resources, the elasticity of its management structure, or the depth of its roots. In sum, they do not really understand what your company can do now, could credibly do in the future or, just as crucially, what its culture inclines it to do.

But they are consulted on these issues nonetheless. The classic example is the involvement of consumers in decisions about brand extension. This is where brand owners learn that consumers ‘want’ the brand to move into a proposed new territory or, conversely, that it ‘cannot’ move there. Either verdict can lead companies to pursue a misguided strategy, but the former is the more dangerous if the company ends up venturing into a territory that lies outside its sphere of expertise.

Richard Rivers, VP Personal Care for Unilever, is refreshingly candid about the painful learning curve the team travelled when trying to extend its men’s fragrance brand, Lynx, in 2000. In a talk given at London Business School in October 2002 he admits, “We fell on our face”. Seeking new ways to penetrate the teenage market in which the Lynx brand was so successful, the marketing team had put a range of exciting new concepts in front of brand loyalists: Lynx razors, Lynx shampoos and Lynx hairdressing salons. The methodology was qualitative and the results were unequivocal: consumers were hugely enthusiastic about the prospect of seeing their brand move into these seemingly adjacent territories.

But they were adjacent only in consumer terms, not when examined from the point of view of corporate capability. The leap from aftershave to razors might not seem so far conceptually, but the technologies involved are utterly different. Gillette has invested some $11 billion in razor R&D over 30 years; how could a fragrance brand from a broadly-based fmcg company compete? It couldn’t, despite the efforts of one of the world’s most creative advertising agencies to switch the shaving agenda from technology to style. The launch commercials through BBH London were strong enough to encourage trial but repeat purchase was low. Then Gillette came in with the Mach 3, on which they’d spent $750 million in development, and Lynx had no way to compete. “We didn’t have the metal-bashing skills”, is Rivers’ laconic assessment.

The razors were withdrawn, Lynx shampoos lasted a year, and the Lynx salons – promoted as a kind of ‘bloke heaven’ cross between a barbershop and an amusement arcade – were closed after a 14-month trial during which Unilever’s inexperience in the service sector had been exposed. Lynx is still a remarkably successful brand, reporting faster growth than any other Unilever brand in 2003. But as Rivers concludes, “We know more now about the limits of its extendibility than we did, and now approach the pronouncements of adolescents with considerably more caution.”

Even for brands rooted in an attitude rather than a specific capability, consumers can be a poor guide to the limits of brand stretch. Most consumers, and many pundits come to that, seem happy to accept the presence of the Virgin brand in totally diverse business areas, just so long as it sticks to its policy of challenging the status quo. But Mark Ritson, Professor of Marketing at London Business School, takes a contrarian view of the brand’s fabled elasticity:

“They’ve identified good markets and although their brand is extendable, can they actually then go to market and deliver it in a profitable way? The answer most of the time is ‘no’”.

Ritson cites the example of Virgin Cola to make the point that issues of capability don’t end with the product. “In theory you could take on Coke with an equally good tasting cola and actually make some money. It’s an attractive market to be in. But could Virgin actually go in there, break distribution chains, get the advertising right? No they couldn’t. They haven’t got the time, resources or the know-how.”

Consumers and corporate culture

Sitting with consumers, discussing the brand as though it were a blank piece of paper, it is easy to forget that behind it is a living organisation with that amalgam of values, proclivities, tradition and accident we call culture. In the outside world, this culture might be poorly perceived and little prized, but inside the organisation it’s a different story. As companies become larger and more dispersed, culture is a vitally important force in keeping people together and motivated. In this context, few things are more divisive than the pronouncements of marketing teams that the qualities the company cares most deeply about are not valued by consumers.

This can occur when new advertising campaigns are unveiled. For example in May 2003 the UK advertising trade magazine Campaign quotes a press release from the coffee brand Kenco highlighting its new TV campaign for Kenco Rappor. The ads dramatise a category generic – the caffeine hit – rather than the traditional Kenco virtue of taste. As the release explains, ‘According to research, the 18-25 year-old target thinks our taste credentials are secondary in importance.’ Perhaps so, but you have to wonder how that message plays to the company’s coffee-growing, buying, blending and R&D professionals as they go the extra mile to improve the brand’s flavour appeal. Of course communications must take into account the attitudes, desires and ‘so-what’ shrugs of its primary target, but does that mean it has to ignore completely the passion and commitment coming the other way?

Perhaps we can answer that with an example from the world of car advertising. In the mid 1990s the Honda account for Europe was handled by the London advertising agency BDDH, of which both authors were then senior directors. (No, this isn’t going to be one those weren’t-we-clever stories; just the reverse, in fact.) Honda’s passion, as the agency knew well from its in-depth cultural briefings in Japan, was engineering. Honed in Formula One competition, enshrined in the company mantra, engineering excellence was Honda’s shimei – a Japanese concept that can loosely be translated as ‘mission’ but which means, more literally, and more heroically, ‘The reason for our existence’.

But the agency’s planners had bad news. Consumers, they assured, were not interested in engineering. It was not motivating. They knew this because they had tested various concept-board propositions based on engineering in groups. What loyalists liked most about Honda most was driving feel. This is where the planners decided the advertising focus should be. After much wrangling inside the agency, and between agency and client, this rather nebulous concept was given to the creative teams to dramatise as best they could. The results were forgettable.

None of this implies that the knowledge gained by the planners was worthless. It’s good to know what you are up against; chastening to hear the consumer’s sigh of indifference. But what consumers were indifferent to, literally, were the planner’s concept boards on the engineering theme. This is not the same thing as indifference to the subject presented with all the verve and ingenuity that ensues when creative talent intersects with as powerful a force as shimei. Agency creative teams are galvanised when they come across genuine conviction inside an organisation; it raises their sights and gets the blood coursing through their veins. Planners and marketers might do better to note what consumers have to say on the subject that is closest to a company’s heart – and ignore it.

In 2003, a more courageous agency and Honda marketing team did exactly that. Wieden + Kennedy’s ‘cog’ commercial blew everyone away from the moment it was aired. It was about nuts and bolts and springs and valves and sheets of shiny metal self-assembling in a mechanical bit-by-bit fashion to complete a car. It was a paean to engineering – the very subject that consumers, apparently, didn’t care about. Well they did now, when dramatised like this. The spot won not just every creative award in sight but also the 2003 APG gold award for the most effective commercial for an established brand. That plaudit was for measured performance against the end consumer; but think what it must have done for the spirits of the 130,000-strong audience who worked on the inside. They count too. Sometimes they count more.

 

Symptom #5: Something hollow at the heart of the brand.

In 1997, global research with consumers persuaded British Airways that it was a bit too, well, British. The airline obligingly took steps to become less so by painting its tails the colours of the world. The project, codenamed Utopia, is probably the most graphic example on record of a brand voluntarily hollowing out the meaning at its core and declaring, “We can be anything you want us to be”. But British Airways wasn’t just any old brand at the time. Influential people cared about its heart and soul more than it did itself; letters were written, complaints lodged; Baroness Thatcher, famous for ‘handbagging’ those who crossed her, took out a handkerchief to cover the tailfin of a model BA plane at a press function. British Airways was made to understand that it couldn’t accommodate the comparatively shallow desires of its new global consumers without sacrificing something of what made it special to others, including loyalists, customers closer to home and, crucially, its own staff.

Not every brand is as lucky. Many modern brands are left to drift on the tide of consumer opinion until they lose sight of the shores of meaning from which they have become detached. Are they waving or drowning?

In 1960 Levitt said that marketing should start with the consumer. When we interviewed him in 2004 even he acknowledged the danger of brands abandoning their ‘foundational belief’. If you look at the examples in our first four symptoms of malaise, a common theme emerges: the brand, by identifying with the consumer, loses sight of itself, of what it stands for, of what it’s good at and what it believes in. In so doing it ends up sacrificing authenticity, specialness, distinction, cohesion and pride. It joins the ranks of other characterless consumer-led brands vying for the attention of an increasingly uninterested public. In that sense, then, perhaps symptom number 5 is not really a symptom at all, but a cause. Brands can’t thrive forever with hollowness at the core. They need to be good at something that is good for people, need to regain an appetite for leading rather than following, need to have a view on how to make the human condition just a little better and work towards making it happen.

You can call this ‘purpose’, you can call it ‘conviction’, you can call it shimei; we prefer to call it ‘belief’. But whatever you call it, if you want your brand to survive in an increasingly hostile marketing environment, it needs to be there.