On the Campaign couch
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign couch

As you're probably aware, Baroness Thatcher died quite recently. Many people have used this event as an excuse to punt their own pet theories about everything from presidential politics to the poverty gap. What lessons, if any, can the marketing and advertising worlds draw from the life, work and character of Margaret Thatcher?

I knew some idiot would ask me this question. Have you no consideration for Campaign readers who have spent the past two weeks vainly trying to find any medium, platform, programme or newspaper column devoted to any subject other than that of the late Leaderene? But, OK, if you insist. Let’s get it over with.

The most resounding lesson is about the nature of brands. People who should know better continue to preach and practise as if a brand was as objectively consistent as a product. They’ve embraced the idea of brand personality or brand image while failing to understand the inevitable implications of such concepts. A brand’s image or a brand’s personality is simply the equivalent of a person’s reputation. It is prompted by the brand just as a person’s reputation is prompted by the person; but neither exists until it has been processed and constructed by the human mind. And since every human mind differs from every other human mind, it follows that a brand that is known to ten million people may have ten million subjectively created and subtly different brand personalities. It’s true that a brand may enjoy a very consistent personality – but this doesn’t mean it’s become an objective fact. It’s the result of what Bamber Gascoigne once usefully described as a consensus of subjectivity.

Millions of words have been devoted to Baroness Thatcher over the past weeks. One point has been made with astonishing regularity. She was divisive: you either loved or loathed her; she polarised opinion. There was no consensus of subjectivity when it came to the Maggie reputation.

Yet the original source material for those wildly disparate reputations was, of course, common and consistent. The same woman, the same speeches, the same actions, the same handbags: it was the wildly disparate prisms through which those common characteristics were viewed that turned the identical ingredients into such contradictory conclusions.

Norman Tebbitt saw one person; Arthur Scargill another. And, despite what commentators claim, these constructions weren’t neatly polarised. Those polar positions were occupied – but there was an infinitely graded series of variations in between. Sir Bufton Tufton, for example, was confused and conflicted: he didn’t know how to cope with a bossy, shopkeeper’s daughter but, while she was winning, was more than prepared to coast in the slipstream. While she was winning…

Mrs Thatcher believed in free markets and competition and she unleashed wave upon wave of privatisation programmes. You could say, very parochially, that she was good for advertising. But her most lasting value could be an unintentional one. Next time you hear anyone, and most particularly yourself, talk about a brand as if it was something as objectively and universally recognised as, say, a numeral – please, please remember the Blessed Margaret.

Can you think of a better term than "integration" to describe what all we agencies aspire to achieve both within our own businesses and for our clients these days? It seems such a passé term and yet what it describes is still of crucial relevance. Can you sex it up?

No, I can’t. Because, if you’ve understood any of the rambling answer above, you’ll have realised that true communications integration isn’t something accomplished by the transmitters of stimuli; it can be achieved only by their receivers.

All receivers (consumers, viewers, readers) unconsciously try to make coherent sense of the various signals that brands send out. When a brand transmits clashing, contradictory, dissonant signals – something that Mrs Thatcher never did – its audience will struggle to integrate. A £120 bottle of Dom Pérignon, promoted by a chance to win a free weekend at Butlins, forces its audience to integrate; to make some sort of sense of it. And the sense they’ll make is of a brand that’s lost all confidence in what it stands for.

"Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore’s Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10.Telephone (020) 8267 4919
Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP