Brand Identities and Values | Is Branding Bad?

An analysis of 880 papers assessing the direct economic effects of advertising on businesses found that “the most effective advertisements of all are those with little or no rational content.” (Les Binet and Peter Field, 2009, p.130).

By transcending the tangible, firms aim to raise themselves out of the commodity marketplace altogether. Consumers don’t truly believe there’s a huge difference between products,” which is why brands must “establish emotional ties” with their customers, pronounced Scott Bedbury[1]; the man largely responsible for building both the Nike and Starbucks brands.

As Nestle realised when it printed the Festival of Britain’s logo on it’s chocolate bars in 1951, association with culturally significant people or events can create emotional attachment to a brand. The same goes for the Brylcreem adverts in 1954 featuring Dennis Compton, the professional footballer and cricketer, with the tagline, “Men that people look to, use Brylcreem”[2].

Marketers were forming an association between social status, the qualities of the product and the brand. However, during the 1980s, brands began to demand more than mere association from the sponsorship deals they cut. They realised that they were actually in competition for consumers’ attention with the very people or events that they sponsored.

Brands started to claim centre stage, becoming involved in the production of the piece of culture that they were sponsoring (Klein, 2000) or even becoming ‘content creators’ themselves. For example the Virgin’s V-Festival in which Virgin Cola was sold, Virgin Trains used for transport and even had toilet paper printed with ‘Poopis’ and ‘Cack ‘- parodies of Virgin Cola’s competitors (Branson, 1998). The result was the creation of a number of brands that built such a strong emotional attachment with consumers that they became celebrities in their own right.

In order to reach this position of power, advertisements are no longer used to make associations between the brand and a desirable lifestyle. Instead, they carefully study the culture and find a set of values or ideas that are important to their potential consumers. They then adopt these values as their ‘brand values’ and buy exposure of their branded products to the people that appreciate the cultural values they have embodied.

Marketers are reflecting society back on itself, correlating these values to tangible objects – linking the unattainable with the attainable. In doing so, Williamson (1978) claims they strip away feelings or emotions from the systems in which they originally gain meaning. This began as sponsorship of relevant events or celebrity figures but has culminated in some brands fulfilling a unique cultural role themselves.

“Nike is not a design or a style. It’s an idea…They use the same offshore factories and cheap materials as everybody else. But they represent the drama and passion of sport. They just own it.” (Garfield in BBC news, 2010). “Nike is athletes, athletes are sports, Nike is sports.” (Urban, 1993 p.2). Nike no longer called themselves a sneaker company but a ‘sports company’ and Starbucks is not a coffee company but a ‘community company’ (Klein, 2000). Even Bic “defined its business not as pens but as disposability” (Tauber, in Aaker, 1996).

Absolute Vodka chose to avoid restricting its brand to association with just one set of culturally important values. They developed a marketing strategy that could be adapted to make their brand symbolize whatever the onlooker felt strongly about. It excluded their product altogether, presenting their identifiable bottle shape filled with whatever stood at the centre of the media that the image appeared in. The bottle shape was filled with futuristic things in Wired, intellectual things in Harper’s and nude women in Playboy (Klein, 2000). “Vodka is a hard drink to separate on the basis of taste, so they separated their brand through narrative and package,” (Twitchell in BBC News, 2011).

Figure 8 An Absolute Vodka advert targeting the gay community.[3]

This trend can be measured in the expansion of logos on the outside of clothing during the 1980s. Although Lactose and Ralph Lauren had sewn small logos on the chest of shirts for decades, consumers were turned into walking billboards as logos expanded to engulf the entire product.

Figure 9 A Tommy Hilfiger advert from 1990.[4]

 A brand’s success is no longer measured in relation to product quality and consistency but by its ‘product scope’; how well it can stretch across product lines and still provide the selling power of the ideas that it embodies. Corporations used the strength of their brand to move from being a music company to a clothing company, an airline and a bank (Branson, 1998).

Large companies have created complex ‘brand architectures’ – portfolios of endorsed brands and sub brands as well as an organizational brand. For example, the Disney endorsed, Oral B branded, ‘Winnie-Pooh’ electric toothbrushes – manufactured by P&G[5].

The aim is to maximise synergy between the brands, whereby their complementary brand values, images and personalities build a sense of relationship with the consumer – to greater commercial effect than the sum of their independent values.

[1] Scott Bedbury, speaking to the Association of National Advertisers, quoted in The New York Times, 20 October 1997

[2] (2010)