Searching for the elusive brand-o-matic

A few years ago J. Walter Thompson asked a consumer research group to put the Kraft Dinner brand on a psychiatrist's couch (see 'Putting KD on the couch' on page 2). Responses showed that KD had a nasty self-esteem problem: The staple of low-income families and university students around the world was diagnosed as insecure, out-of-date and withdrawn.

A few years ago J. Walter Thompson asked a consumer research group to put the Kraft Dinner brand on a psychiatrist’s couch (see ‘Putting KD on the couch’ on page 2). Responses showed that KD had a nasty self-esteem problem: The staple of low-income families and university students around the world was diagnosed as insecure, out-of-date and withdrawn.

To cure KD of its poor self-image, Kraft raised the price, redesigned the packaging and launched a new series of TV spots, including one showing animated goldfish turning their watery home into cheesy sludge while preparing the fluorescent treat.

There’s no doubt that raising the price and spiffing up the packaging can reposition a product as more upmarket. But do you need to psychoanalyze your brand to figure that out?

As for the TV spots – which along with the poor fish include teens making KD in a laundromat and a romantic KD dinner for two – they’re darn funny, but was the couch an essential stepping stone?

Maybe psychoanalyzing Kraft Dinner was exactly what was needed to spark a revival, but sometimes the business of branding seems to be right up there with dot-com business plans and homeopathic cures.

Such flights of fancy are rooted in the fact that marketers are profoundly uncomfortable with the creative wildcard. They would prefer some kind of formula for making advertising, a recipe that produces a winning spot every time.

But brands that follow creative formulas tend to produce lackluster spots. The awful truth is that star campaigns are almost always the result of big ideas that just pop into the heads of creative and strategic geniuses. Who wants to stake millions of dollars (and their job) on that?

Branding consultants, and even some agencies, take advantage of this fear by offering up proprietary creative methodologies, but somewhere behind the wizard’s curtain there’s still a poor creative who’s got to come up with the ideas.

I’m sure that many such methodologies do result in breakthrough solutions, but given the lucrative opps in the branding field, I have a feeling that there are some charlatans mixed in with the real thing.

It must be hard for marketers to tell the pros from the wannabes, so here’s a piece of advice: If you take 20 minutes to read a company’s ‘who we are’ booklet and still don’t have a clue what they do – don’t hire them. Vague brand-o-babble is a serious ailment, and the companies that use a lot of it have got to be hiding something.

In a way, though, marketers have it coming to them: As long as they keep demanding some kind of failsafe creative machine, there will always be companies stepping up to sell them peace of mind. After all, it must be easier to sleep at night knowing that if everything goes to hell, you can just blame a malfunctioning consumer insight model and fire the consultant.

Duncan Hood

special reports editor

dhood@brunico.com