The magic and mystery of brands: a memo

The other day, I found myself preparing to present an ad campaign to a new group of client-side people. I decided to tell them, in advance, not what I was going to show them, but why. The following memo was the...

The other day, I found myself preparing to present an ad campaign to a new group of client-side people. I decided to tell them, in advance, not what I was going to show them, but why. The following memo was the result. I have changed the name of the product to Your Product. But the rest is about what I think those of us who make ad campaigns are supposed to be doing, after 30 years of trying to do it. Feel free to steal it. Or improve upon it.

Memo: Working together with Barry Base & Partners: A User’s Manual

As we are to meet next week as a group for the first time to present an advertising campaign, I thought it appropriate to ‘prime the pump’ with a few notes on our approach to Your Product.

Occasionally in my business, a Mystery Product comes along. Okay, it’s 2001, so call it a Mystery Brand.

A brand whose image, cachet, aura, whatever, is totally larger than life.

Such brands, in their prime, were or are Perrier, Michelin Tires, Wilkinson Sword Blades, Nike running shoes. Absolut Vodka. Volkswagen was once a mystery brand, fell from grace, and is now a mystery brand again. And I believe we all agree we can put Your Brand on that list.

At one time or another, every tire wants to be a Michelin. Every running shoe a Nike. And every vodka an Absolut.

The roots of mystery brands can be profound uniqueness, technological superiority or legend. And that’s where advertising comes in. Because the task of advertising is to create legends, and make products and services seem greater and more desirable and more precious than the sum of their actual components and benefits.

That is why I believe that everything we create that touches upon Your Brand has to live up to the legend, the mystery.

You can’t be ordinary, or commonplace, or invisible, and convince people you’ve still got it. If your crown slips, everyone notices.

My Swissair client of 18 years knew this. Volkswagen appears determined that nothing they allow to appear with the VW name attached will look like any other car advertising that’s ever been done.

A summer ago, I was walking past a sidewalk restaurant in Toronto, and there was a banner tied to the railing that said Mike’s Hard Lemonade.

Cripes, I thought to myself, why would anyone choose to drink something like that? Then I read the line below the product name, and it said An excellent source of Vodka.

I don’t know about you, but in a nanosecond, my opinion of Mike’s Hard Lemonade and the people behind it went way up. Okay, I didn’t sit down at a table and order one. But my mind promoted Mike’s Hard Lemonade from the Not-On-Your-Life category to the Well-Maybe-Sometime rank, easily.

Why? The wit, I guess. The surprise. The little shared joke at seeing the word Vodka appear instead of the Vitamin E claim you were expecting. The touch of class, of sophistication.

Now I wasn’t the only person who saw that banner that summer evening. And I’ll bet, and Mike’s was betting, that if a million people across Canada saw a banner like that a few million times over a long, hot summer, they’d sell more Mike’s than it cost to make the banners and stick them up.

That’s why we fuss, strive, sweat and plead with you to put something drop dead terrific on a poster that just goes in a grocery store or a banner in a bar.

Because eventually, when a million people see something akin to An excellent source of vodka, something will have happened in some portion of those brains that will help plant, or reinforce, the idea that there’s something mysterious, something special about Your Brand.

My fellow columnist at Strategy, John Burghardt, compares the way a good ad works in the human brain to a spark plug. If there is no gap in the plug, there is no spark. Nothing happens. And if the gap is too wide, the spark won’t jump it, and nothing happens. But if the gap is just right, there is one hell of a spark, and you get ignition! John is so smart!

Forgive me if I do go on. But having spent my working life striving to instill and preserve magic and mystery in brands, I wanted to try to convey to you all what it is I am trying to do, on the eve of starting to try to do it together.

Looking forward!

Barry Base creates advertising campaigns for a living. He creates this column for fun, and to test the unproven theory that clients who find the latter amusing may also find the former to their liking. Barry can be reached at (416) 924-5533, or faxed at (416) 960-5255, at the Toronto office of Barry Base & Partners.