Management conferences are a wonderful place to learn and network. But the design of this conference is a little troubling. Rarely does a month go by without a major marketing conference taking place. Each time the organisers exclusively invite powerbrands with multi-million-pound turnovers.
They appear to be under the impression that the size of a company and the ubiquity of its brand are indicators of brand expertise. No such correlation exists.
It's the dirty secret of branding and one that only becomes apparent after a few years of marketing consulting. Anticipation and enthusiasm overwhelm you the first time you work in the marketing department of a company that owns one or more brands with a powerbrand pedigree. You gaze in awe at the logo as you enter the building. You make a point of telling friends in the pub at the weekend who you are working for.
It's only after a few days of the engagement that the shocking truth dawns on you: despite the big brand and the big budget, these people have absolutely no idea what they are doing with respect to marketing.
This is not to say that every famous brand is being run by marketing morons. Many powerbrands are hotbeds of leading-edge marketing thinking and practice. But equally as many are being run in inept or inefficient ways by unqualified marketers imported from senior positions in sales or engineering. You are as likely to find best marketing practice in a business-to-business software company with 50 employees as you are in any one of the organisations listed in Interbrand's annual survey of the world's most powerful brands.
Why the inconsistency? First, most powerbrands were built many decades ago. Despite the invisible halo that follows a marketer from Coca-Cola around the room, the chances of this individual being a skilled marketer are the same as any random marketing employee. Coke is a magical brand, but the marketing strategies that got it there took place more than half a century ago.
The marketing budgets of powerbrands can also hide some truly awful strategic thinking. DaimlerChrysler marketers of Mercedes wrote off £302m in 2001 to compensate suppliers after they failed to position the Smart car correctly in the market. For many small companies a failure to understand their customer and position their brand correctly will result in them going out of business. For most powerbrands it is a rapidly overlooked additional dash of red ink on page 62 of the annual report.
Let us praise marketing maestros, but let us praise them for their marketing rather than the brands they represent. Let us also reserve some praise for the unknown soldiers of marketing who execute best practice strategies for small, unheard-of brands. We may not have heard of their companies yet, but we salute them none the less.