Yes, but is it art?

Branding is a bit like one of those big, colourful rectangle paintings by Rothko. An expert on the New York School of abstract painting could write a 400-page treatise on how it came about and what it means, but when you step up to the picture, what you see is just a big colourful rectangle.
In the same way, the best brands have hours of strategizing behind them, result from reams of research, and the brand architects could write a book on what they mean, but they look pretty simple to the consumer.

Branding is a bit like one of those big, colourful rectangle paintings by Rothko. An expert on the New York School of abstract painting could write a 400-page treatise on how it came about and what it means, but when you step up to the picture, what you see is just a big colourful rectangle.

In the same way, the best brands have hours of strategizing behind them, result from reams of research, and the brand architects could write a book on what they mean, but they look pretty simple to the consumer.

They have to: Your brand only has access to one one-millionth of a consumer’s attention – if that – so complicated messages are out.

Just ask Al Ries. He’s been writing about branding for longer than most of you have been in marketing, and throughout his numerous books (the most famous is Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind), he keeps coming back to the same idea: Keep it simple, narrow your focus. (See page 23 for a chat about branding with Al.)

As he notes, we live complicated lives in complicated environments. We’re bombarded by messages and have to process incoming images, words and ideas fast. It’s like there’s a mad librarian running around in our heads trying to catalogue a stream of incoming books. Ideas that are simple and make sense get shelved and indexed. Ideas that are complex or devoid of meaning? Ignored.

As Ries points out, a good brand, like a good movie or book, can be summed up in a sentence, and the best way to make that sentence memorable is to be top of the class.

FedEx? The reliable overnight courier. Mercedes? The prestige car. Coca-Cola? The real thing. Each one a big colourful rectangle: easy to absorb, but difficult to create.

Abstract art might not be such a crazy metaphor for branding after all, given how abstract the branding field has become lately. The biggest change in the field over the last few years (see ‘The cradle-to-grave conundrum’ on page 19) has been that brand ideas, while remaining simple and grabby, have less to do with the actual products than they used to. ‘Just do it,’ ‘There’s a little M in everyone,’ ‘Think different,’ ‘The choice of a new generation.’ If the phrases weren’t so familiar, you’d never guess what they were selling.

But what you would recognize are the references to determination, community, individuality and youth, which are all, not coincidentally, desirable characteristics. According to Ries, branding is all about choosing such an attribute, claiming it as your own, and then sticking with it, no matter what. (Yes it’s that easy – and you’re paying your branding consultant far too much.)

But then Alan Quarry, an astute marketer you probably haven’t heard as much about because he’s hidden away in Waterloo, Ont. (and doesn’t have a tagline), steps up and ruins it all. That’s just the brand image, he says mischievously, that’s the promise. Brand equity, the thing you really need, is only built when you keep that promise (see page 25 for more on that).

This is the part where most marketers throw up their hands. (I literally witnessed this when the head of marketing at one of Canada’s big banks asked me what I thought of his advertising efforts: I said the campaigns were great, but when people actually go to the local branch, the promise falls flat. ‘I know,’ he said, shrugging a ‘What can you do?’)

It’s funny, when you think about it, that the stumbling block for some of the best minds in marketing is something as old-fashioned as providing good service to your customers. But if you don’t do it, the best brand image in the world won’t save you because whenever you promise great service, you’ll be lying (even marketing maven McDonald’s ran into this one).

So there you have it, go forth and brand: Choose your attribute, develop creative that embodies it and then deliver when your customer steps up to the plate. It’s as simple and complex as a Rothko.

Duncan Hood

Special Reports Editor

dhood@brunico.com