The Role And Value Of Branding

Mark Di SommaApril 17, 20142 min

So many people misunderstand the role of brand. They think it’s a synonym for marketing, and marketing is a synonym for media spend.

  • A brand tells people who to value and why.
  • Marketing tells them how the brand is valued, and where to access it.

The purpose of your brand is to use that perceived value to provide you, through marketing, with sustained sales at a greater level of return than the market is inclined to give you over the longer term.

The objective of every brand should be to lift what people are prepared to pay, to motivate people to value you more than they would do otherwise. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a discount brand, a scale brand, a luxury brand or a cult brand, that’s the goal. It doesn’t matter whether these are boom times or bust.

If you’re not a brand, you’re a commodity. You are only worth the value that the market assigns. And in good times, many companies are happy with that. They stop spending, ride the commodity wave and bank the organic growth. They allow themselves to believe the increases are all their own doing.

Things turn pear-shaped though when the wave changes direction. When things get tough, the temptation is to hunker down – to cut expenditure and look to ride out the tough times. The myth of cost-cutting is that it makes you a more competitive company. It doesn’t. It does make you a leaner company, a less expensive company, it does provide you with more cashflow. But it doesn’t generate preference. In fact, it doesn’t generate anything.

If you’re a company in trouble, branding is not a magic bullet. It won’t suddenly save you because it probably won’t lift your perceived value fast enough before you hit the wall. It needs to be used in conjunction with a range of other turnaround initiatives, including efficiency gains. But not branding will almost certainly kill you. Without branding you are, quite literally, nothing special, whether your bank account is telling you that or not.

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Mark Di Somma


  • Brent Pulford

    April 19, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    Is it really that hard to understand a brand? Is it really something that needs to be explained and explored ad infinitum?
    The question I have is, if the director of marketing for Coke read this column, would he go, “Holy sh!t, I never thought of that before, thank god there’s guys like Mark clarifying this for me”?

    I started working in advertising agencies in the mid 80’s as a writer and I worked primarily on multinational brands like Pepsi. We were rarely confused by the attributes of the brand we were working on and how to perpetually deepen people’s familiarity with it from a functional, emotional and self actualizing way.

    But somehow there are now more brand experts, people capable of making the brand perform like a seal in a circus act, than ever before. They cultivate a mystique around the brand as well as their shaman like skills that can’t really be explained because well, the brand is a mystery that we’re all trying to unravel, and it’s the few (but really multitudes) who have the gift of relating to the brand in that spiritual way that you either have or you don’t that justifies their preposterous claims of “brand experts”.

    If there’s any one thing that truly confuses people and has contributed to more to the abandonment of the guiding principles of effective communication, it’s been the decade or so of media proliferation. Web designers are also determining what the website should look like and perform like based not on a good hard strategy, rather on what new tricks are available. They do this because they are engineers not communicators. If there’s a regular call that I get these days it’s to fix websites so they actually do reflect current brand attributes while suggesting brand aspirations. But hey, since I don’t build websites I’m rarely consulted when the decisions about the website are being made.

    The last time I checked a brand was a lot like a person – biochemically the same but all slightly different for different reasons which is why we’re capable of recognizing one another.
    Just to use Coke as an example again, it’s been in business since very early in the 20th Century, it has been successful so its grown and therefore become recognizable, it has positioned itself in the market and stayed to true to that positioning, yet it has evolved to remain relevant and, consequently it has owned the top spot in the soft drink business for what seems an eternity. For a nascent brand to rocket into the stratosphere it either needs a huge infusion of cash or it is going to have to grow organically and for many of us working on it, we will never live to see it become the lion we know it’s going to be because it takes time. I’m certain when Coke was launched, initially as a “tonic”, soft drinks as we know them didn’t really exist back then, the people who worked on it then, as ambitious and aspirational as we are today, couldn’t possibly have imagined what it is they wrought.

    From my perspective, the guiding principles that have grown brands, in some cases now, for over a century, haven’t changed. But media has. And if there isn’t a single entity devising effective media plans, people who understand all new media and how each is leveraged to complement another, you can have all the brand experts you want, and the confusion that has driven god knows how many industries to miss the point entirely and worship the brand, will never get it because it’s media that’s got almost everybody baffled and contributed most to the belief that a one-off stunt on YouTube is all you need to spread the gospel of 90% of the brands you can name. It’s BS and it’s time people who’ve been around awhile stand up and admit it.

  • Mark Disomma

    April 21, 2014 at 4:06 pm

    Brent – you ask whether brand, and more particularly brand strategy, is something that needs to be explained and explored ad infinitum. I guess it comes down to whether it’s a subject that interests you or not. Personally I find the dialogue around brand fascinating because it’s a starting point for so many interesting discussions about business.

    As you so rightly point out in your comments about media, the context within which brands compete continues to evolve. I too started out working in ad agencies, actually around the same time as you, and brands were a pretty straight-forward proposition in those days. You wrote a campaign for print and/or TV, maybe you did some supporting dm to the trade – project closed. I’m not belittling that in any way – but I think it was a simpler world in which to make your point.

    As you say, changes in media, and how media is consumed have changed markedly, and continue to shift and that is driving the need for brands to adapt. I enjoy listening to the discussions around that. And yes, sure, there are people out there selling snake oil, but that happens in every sector doesn’t it? For a lot of us though I think it’s about reading and listening and grappling with where it’s going, what it might mean and how we might be able to contribute.

    We don’t have all the answers by any means – because I think a lot of us are still working our way through the questions. Look how much they keep changing. Have you seen the PBS special “Generation Like”? It previews the convergence of media, brands, entertainment, celebrity and mass participation and discusses how events and ideas that seem “spontaneous” are being skilfully planned to the very smallest detail. I found it eye-opening. Throw the need for funding into that equation in order to get take-up and there seems like a lot to talk about. The irony of YouTube is that sure, anyone can get attention – but can they keep attention, and can they convert attention into money? It’s interesting to watch companies like Coke investing so much in participating in pop culture because they clearly understand that if they can’t put their sugar water at the centre of what young people are talking about and interested in, the sugar will lose a lot of its sweetness.

    Two things you said really resonated with me. The first was your comment about engineers, not communicators. The other was your point about brands being like people. I think the job of writers is to be the “human” in the green room of every agency; to represent the unsaid factors that get people interested, to decipher what the planners are saying (and today what the coders are demanding) and to get the comms to work. That never changes. Bernbach was a master of that. So was Ogilvy. Channels may be how ideas get distributed and discussed, and the tech world may be obsessed with the discussion of which channel is hot and why, but without the idea itself, and the insights that made it fascinating, it’s just another meme in a world full of content.

    As the channels proliferate and the panacea are offered up thick and fast, that’s the bit we all need to stay focused and to truly value: the human factors. The brands that lose sight of that will indeed lose sight of what they’re really about.

    Maybe the length of both our comments hints at just how much there is still to discuss. Thank you for taking the time.

  • Ted Manasa

    May 12, 2014 at 11:51 am

    Mark, I love how strongly you come out for branding and against cost cutting and commodification. More companies need to follow that belief.

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