Rebranding ‘branding’: will overuse create a backlash?

This past year in Strategy, the word 'branding' turned up 287 times. It is the industry equivalent to fashion's current peasant blouse craze. Experts say that the uptick in brandishing the term has emerged in reaction to the marketplace becoming increasingly commoditized, and that it reflects marketers' obsession with differentiation. Once confined to the packaged goods category, branding has infiltrated other fields. You can brand a baseball team - or a nation for that matter. (Canada could use a sound branding strategy.) But will the overuse, and often incorrect usage of the term, and the fact that the diverse players who profess to do it all have different theories and processes, create a 'branding' backlash?
Strategy caught up with agencies and clients alike to gauge their feelings about the term of the moment, and garner insight on how the emphasis on branding has impacted the client-agency relationship.

Our panel includes:


Claude Carrier, VP and partner, Bos, Montreal

Frank Palmer, CEO, Palmer Jarvis DDB, Vancouver

Bruce Philp, Partner, Garneau Würstlin Philp Brand Engineering, Toronto

Andrea Southcott, President and COO, Bryant Fulton & Shee, Vancouver

Chris Staples, Partner, Rethink, Vancouver


Chris Armstrong, Chief marketing officer

TD Bank Financial Group, Toronto

Doug Brummer, SVP marketing and advertising

Great Atlantic & Pacific Co. of Canada, Toronto

Andrew Howard, Director of Labatt Blue and value brands

Labatt Breweries, Toronto

What is branding?

Palmer: It’s an emblem or a symbol for a company or a product.

Carrier: Perception is branding. It’s what consumers take away from the product or service.

Staples: Branding is a personality applied to a product or service, over a long period of time.

Southcott: It’s creating a focus in terms of what a brand stands for and then also, creating the tone and manner around that.

Philp: Branding is the process of managing the brand’s conduct in the marketplace so that its promise is clear and believable.

Howard: Branding is the value that you can create by building equity into a name and a personality that consumers are willing to pay more for than a commodity.

Armstrong: Experience brands are all about the way customers interact with us.

Brummer: A brand is a relationship that exists between the consumer and the product or store. Branding is the dynamic process where you look at the set of activities that you use to create this relationship, this image, with the customer for this product or service.

Do you think it’s an overused term?

Philp: I think the term has been devalued in the boardroom quite badly, and as a result, you’re seeing pundits dismiss it as yesterday’s fad. A brand is defined as something you absolutely have to have in order to do business. If it’s misunderstood and dismissed then it gives you permission to stop paying attention to it. If you don’t pay attention to the brand, it bites you in the ass.

Staples: Every two years there’s a new catchphrase. Whether it’s ‘paradigm shift’ or for a while it was ‘solutions’. Now it’s all about branding. It’s too bad because of all of those catchphrases branding is important, and I would hate to see that term devalued. It looks like it’s going that way.

Howard: I do find different corporate descriptions of branding feel very generic, so I don’t feel that I know what an agency or firm’s expertise is. Maybe the criticism is that it’s a very general term.

If you’re a component of branding, you should define yourself as to the component you specialize in.

Where is the term used incorrectly?

Carrier: I’ll give you an example. I’m working with a client now who said, ‘yes we need branding.’ But in their mind when they hear branding, they think ‘we need an ad agency that will project an image.’ That’s where I go, ‘whoa, this is not what we should be talking about. What you’re talking about is one element and it shouldn’t be driving the train.’ A lot of people will equate advertising with branding.

Brummer: That’s criminal because it’s not just about advertising. Advertising’s an important component, but you have to go way beyond that. For us, it’s about taking what our brand’s all about and looking at how we support that from every aspect of the business.

Philp: I think it’s innocently but widely misused in the design community, to describe the process of creating a name, logo and visual identity. A lot of design companies worldwide saw the renewed emphasis on branding in the early ’90s as an opportunity to expand their role. I think oftentimes they’re ill equipped to actually build the real thing. The same accusation may fairly be leveled at management consultants.

Staples: A lot of clients will hire an agency and expect that the advertising will fully create a brand. Very few clients are looking for a completely holistic top-to-bottom approach, where everything will change.

Can ad agencies legitimately play a role in branding?

Armstrong: I believe you always build a brand from the customer into the organization, so it has to be related to what a customer wants. Then you make sure everyone inside the organization understands how he/she contributes to the delivery of the brand promise. Stage three is where the agency gets involved, which is to make meaningful communications of this brand experience.

Palmer: The agency is a custodian. The client is in charge of the brand. It takes a long time to build a brand of quality and substance, but it takes very little to bring it down. And an agency can bring a company down pretty quick with frivolous, unexciting, unemotional advertising. So an agency can play a big role in the building of a brand, or the demise of a brand.

Carrier: Most agencies tend to be focused on the communications part with the consumer. But clearly branding goes far beyond that, especially for products that aren’t easily delivered in the marketplace. For instance, we’re working with clients in the service area and we have developed some exercises to help them refine the focus of branding. We say, ‘here’s what we can do from an advertising part; here’s what you need to do from a delivery part.’

Brummer: We look at Rethink as a partner. They look at how they can integrate the message, look and feel of our advertising throughout the organization. They are brand guardians on one hand, and brand evangelists on the other hand.

Southcott: We [also] work intimately with our clients on their branding strategy. We believe it’s critical for us to be in the engine room with our branding partners, otherwise we can’t create effective communications. Sophisticated, strategic work around branding has been a huge growth area in our agency in the past few years.

Are agencies doing a good job of branding?

Can you give examples?

Philp: Right now [for the most part], they’re not. Over the last several years, there has been an emphasis on ads instead of campaigns. If you create a culture of awards and careerism around making great ads instead of great campaigns, you deprive the brand of being able to speak consistently in the marketplace. From consistency comes the believability of the promise.

I think the work that Taxi did for Telus is an example [of consistency], and in that same product category, the same thing is true for Fido. Both stay close to the campaign fundamentals that built the brand in the first place. What happens more often is that the agency gets bored with a campaign, and wants something fresh. I admire anyone who has the conviction to stick with something that works. It might not be explosive, but can be additive.

Palmer: I think Tim Hortons is doing an excellent job of branding themselves. And if [its Toronto-based AOR] Enterprise Creative Selling wasn’t doing a good job, it wouldn’t be growing as fast as it is.

Staples: I [also] think Tim Hortons is a good example. It’s hard to find Canadian brands where the brand promise lives in the advertising and is actually delivered in the experience. A lot of Canadian brands have great in-store experience but don’t reflect that in advertising. Or vice versa. That’s because it takes enormous focus and commitment to have everyone in the company singing from the same song sheet. I think some companies, like The Bay, are maybe just too big.

Brummer: It starts at the top of the organization. The president or CEO has to drive it through and it has to be a priority for him or her. It’s not just about dollars and cents. It’s about how you use the brand to drive your sales and profitability and making sure that all the activities in the organization are aligned.

How can agencies acquire the skills necessary to become brand marketers?

Palmer: It takes a long time to build [brand marketing skills.] Unfortunately our business today is suffering like the forests. I think the agency business has an eco-challenge too. And the challenge is that we’re not growing enough people of substance who can truly respect the needs of taking care of the client’s brand.

I think there’s not enough training – there’s too many fast deadlines, too many quick fixes, as in clients want sales now. Too often, when that happens, you don’t really gain the knowledge.

We get into real arguments with clients and say, ‘you can destroy [your brand] by having some frivolous promotion on price.’ Look at the health of department stores in Canada – they don’t know who they are. They don’t have a strong agency partner that is willing to fight for the brand.

Southcott: Part of it is account planning – understanding emotional insights around branding. But part of it is also developing strategic tools and a strategic expertise over time. We’ve built a lot more strategists within the agency, and we use tools within our TBWA network that really help us to brand effectively for our clients.

Philp: The responsibility for branding resides first and foremost in strategy. It used to be that strategy was the responsibility of the most senior account people in the agency, and those people were created through a process of apprenticeship. You had four or five levels of account service, and you graduated from one to the next by learning on the job.

When the recession hit at the end of the 1980s, agencies took out layers of account management, but didn’t replace the oral tradition of apprenticeship. Predictably, 10 years on, you have an entire generation of senior people that haven’t gone through that mentoring process.

I think agencies have the skills, but they probably now reside at very senior levels; the only people who can restore that stewardship role are the people that are running the shops. It’s a question of leadership.

What function do client marketers want agencies to play?

Armstrong: What you say to your agency, once you’ve defined your brand and your service delivery is up to standard, is ‘here’s what the brand is and because you’ve been working with us, you understand what you can say about it that would be authentic.’

What you’ve done is created a phone booth for them to do ballet in, and I’ve found that agencies are at their creative best when they’re making authentic messaging. The client, in so many situations today, has given up defining the phone booth. Clients don’t narrow down the objectives for the agency, and because they don’t, the agency has license to go out and ‘be creative,’ as opposed to ‘be creative’ within the confines of the tightly defined brand.

Howard: Labatt needs a great-thinking agency that can help, but isn’t charged with branding. We go hand-in-hand with our agency into strategy, communications objectives and briefing, but those need to be led by the client. We abdicate our responsibility as clients too often.

Staples: Most clients want results out of their agency. They want to see an immediate spike in sales. What we try to make them understand is that the best way to get those results is not by merely putting some ads on the air. The best way to truly spike sales over the long term is to take a look at how the advertising works with everything else.

Carrier: I have clients who would say ‘no, the brand is our responsibility.’ But other clients say, ‘I need help from somebody on the outside to come with a fresh perspective to help figure it out.’ From a business perspective, you get the benefit of a closer and stronger association with the client. From a purely professional perspective, it’s more interesting for any practitioner to say, ‘I’m being asked to help them impact the total brand, not only the messaging part.’

Southcott: What we’re finding is that clients really want the agency involved in branding. It’s at least as, if not more, important than the creative services we provide. We do this for all of our clients at different levels.

Palmer: When you find a great client, they want to partner with you, they don’t want you to be just an idle person who sits on the side and takes instruction.