Richard Huntington
Richard Huntington
A view from Richard Huntington

Branding should be left to the cowboys

Frankly, any metaphor that alludes to searing hide as a red-hot iron is driven into an animal's flesh doesn't seem like an entirely good look for contemporary marketing.

That’s why I hate it when people refer to ‘branding’.

The nether reaches of social media are awash with charlatans banging on about ‘branding’, how to improve your ‘branding’, ‘10 ways to better branding’ and the like. And calling themselves ‘branding experts’ or ‘branding agencies’. It’s the word ‘branding’, it’s horrible.

I admit, it’s a small thing and frankly there are bigger issues to be worrying about than a clumsy use of language. But like that ghastly habit people have of saying ‘creatives’ meaning more than one creative asset, using the phrase ‘branding’ is a poker tell that suggests someone doesn’t actually understand what they, or we, do.

More seriously, it speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding, that brand building is about creating and using physical artefacts and symbols as if these ‘are’ the brand. When anyone with a passing familiarity with creating and nurturing great brands know that a brand is nothing more than a mental construct, existing only in the minds of real people.

Professional marketers are in the business of building brands not ‘branding’ anything. Least of all ads.

Ah yes, ad ‘branding’, the bête noir of planners and creatives everywhere. Without question, advertising needs to be attributed to the brand paying for it rather than to the competition. And it’s essential that new associations created by an ad are mapped on to a consumer’s understanding of the brand, so you need a means by which people can recognise which brand it is.

But I have always found conversations about the level of ‘branding’ in an ad utterly sterile, deeply amateur and largely reduced to arguments about for how long the logo is shown. Incidentally there is an absolute corker at the moment in which the Vodafone tadpole never leaves our screens.

That’s why the newly fashionable idea of distinctive brand assets is genuinely helpful. By exploring all the brand furniture that is genuinely associated with a brand, we have evolved a much better approach to ensuring that advertising benefits, and benefits from, people’s understanding of that brand. And as a planner I get jolly excited by studies used to quantify the power of different brand assets, according to their fame and uniqueness. This is all a genuine step forward in the never-having-a-debate-about-the-length-a-logo-appears-ever-again-so-help-me-god department.

But I fear that all this distinctive brand asset stuff is inevitably being treated in a rather ham-fisted way. There appears to be a belief that simply dumping a whole load of distinctive brand assets into a piece of communication will do the job of attribution.

This stems from seeing distinctive brand assets as separate entities working alone rather than members of a system or structure, where each is only as good and powerful as the other elements of that system. The truth is that liberally sprinkling ads with assets is kind of like putting flour, butter, sugar and eggs in bowl and hoping they make an actual cake. The truth is we need to understand the power of the whole, not just the parts.

A more helpful concept is the creative vehicle itself. A creative vehicle is a replicable approach to communications that consumers learn and indelibly aligns ad spend to effect. It is a consistently used creative vehicle, not simply a bunch of distinctive brand assets that really drives up brand attribution and drives down the money an advertiser needs to spend. In my day job, the staggering power of a well-known creative vehicle is demonstrated by the effect and efficiency EE derives from Kevin Bacon and Direct Line derives from the double IPA award-winning Winston Wolfe.

Obviously, characters and spokespeople, whether native to the brand (like Aleksandr Orlov) or drawn from popular culture (like the Wolf himself), are not the only powerful creative vehicles, though they have worked and continue to work stupendously well. A creative vehicle may also take the form of an ownable advertising structure (like "Keep walking" or "Food love stories"), a story repeated in many ways (like the legendary "Should have gone to Specsavers"), an explicit visual world (Like Sainsbury’s most recent work) or an implicit brand world (anything from Nike in the past two decades and every John Lewis Christmas campaign).

Of course, most powerful vehicles employ more than one approach. I was reminded of this during "the World Cup of ads" run by BBH Labs last year, which was so conclusively won by "Guinness surfer". This extraordinary piece of film is as powerful today as when it was created 20 years ago. But it was no one-off; it employed a well-established creative vehicle involving a repeated story (the virtues of patience), and an incredibly distinctive visual world. Sure, many of the elements of this work might be dubbed distinctive brand assets, but their power is in the vehicle that they are part of, not as standalone agents of attribution. 

If building brands is really your game, move beyond obsessing about your distinctive brand assets and identify the creative vehicle you are creating, buying or using – the communications approach that can be repeated over time, creating fame and fortune for your brand.

And leave ‘branding’ to the cowboys, in both senses of the word. 

Richard Huntington is chairman and chief strategy officer at Saatchi & Saatchi