Branding is dead, long live the nonsense of branding

Two marketing gurus have experienced the same vision of branding’s death and sensuous resurrection.

When that first cowboy pressed the searing iron into the hide of that first steer he could not have imagined what he had started. Quite without realising it he had invented branding and created a religion that was to sweep the world.

As with all faiths, the object of worship has become invested with supernatural powers. Branding is at once a panacea, a Holy Grail, a palliative, a miracle and a marvel. Like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra it has infinite variety, for there is nothing that cannot be branded and thereby invested with mystery. Pampers nappies are a brand and so is David Beckham; my favourite summer haunt, Lord’s, awoke to discover itself a brand; New Labour was created a brand – and so elated with its success was Tony Blair that he dreamt of repeating the trick with the whole of Britain. But it fell apart in his hands. Why? Because, despite all that the pious worshipper might wish, branding is not infallible. Many’s the lemon that has borne a brand and many’s the reputation ruined as a result.

When that happens it is natural to turn to the priesthood for succour and comfort, and branding is fortunate in having a plenitude of visionaries, prophets, mentors, seers and sorcerers. In fact, it attracts gurus like a ship’s biscuit attracts weevils. They are, to change metaphors, like the pornographer’s lens – they leave no angle of the subject unexplored and despite obvious limitations never despair of finding something new.

Their technique is ritualistic. First, he or she declares that the brand is dead then, when the sobbing of the congregation has subsided, miraculously resurrects the body by muttering an incantation and revealing a new liturgy.

This extraordinary feat has recently been performed by two different gurus, both of whom are now passing around the offertory plate.

The first is Martin Lindstrom. A child prodigy who launched his first company at the age of 12, he is today the US’s leading brand expert (or so it says on his CV). Lately, he has seen great things and dreamt great dreams, and the result is “sensory branding”.

“In the search for something new,” he says, “I reached the conclusion that we have to move right outside of today’s advertising paradigm. We have to go back to basics and identify what actually appeals to human beings on an ordinary, everyday basis.”

He broke free of the paradigm on a Tokyo street in 1999. “A lady brushed by me and her perfume took me back to my childhood. It was extraordinary. For a moment the rush-hour crowd, the traffic and the high-rise buildings ceased to exist. I was instantly transported to the Danish countryside, smelling the same perfume that a friend of mine always wore.”

This fragrant epiphany got Lindstrom thinking about the future of branding in a cluttered market place. His message is that the super-successful brands of tomorrow will touch all the senses: smell, taste, sound, touch and sight. “The more senses you appeal to, the stronger the message,” he says. Some companies are already doing it: the smell inside a Singapore Airline cabin, the crunch of the Kellogg’s cornflake, the closing of a Mercedes car door – all have been artfully designed to reinforce the brand image.

It works: take the copy of Marketing Week you hold in your hand, feel it, rustle its pages, look at it, smell it, now take a big bite out of it and chew. Now tell me, isn’t that a brand you will never forget?

Guru number two is Kevin Roberts, worldwide chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi. If he has brushed against any Japanese ladies he is keeping it to himself but, like Lindstrom, he knows that conventional branding has had its day, “lost in the clutter of the attention economy”.

Somehow Roberts makes his voice heard above the commotion to announce “a future beyond brands”. It’s called lovemarks.

“Lovemarks are super-evolved brands that make deep emotional connections with consumers. Passionate connections that go inside people’s lives and make a difference. Lovemarks are the charismatic brands that people get emotional about. You know them instantly… Harley Davidson, definitely. Suzuki? I don’t think so. The iPod is a lovemark: Sony is playing catch-up.”

Branding, he says, works the I’s and the E’s: I for ideas, imagination, intuition, insight, and inspiration. E for emotion, empathy, energy, exploration, enchantment, edge.

Hasn’t he forgotten emetic?

“Lovemarks”, he says, “touch mystery, sensuality and intimacy. Mystery to draw together stories, metaphors, dreams and symbols… sensuality shapes the emotions. Sight, sound, smell, touch, taste. Through the five senses we experience the world…”

Hold on! Haven’t we heard this before?

Would you believe it? Two great minds beating as one. Lindstrom and Roberts. Like Astaire and Rogers, Lennon and McCartney, Huntley and Palmer, Dickens and Jones, they touch mystery, evoke emotion, stir the senses, summon up the blood, chill the marrow, raise the hackles, splice the main brace, buckle your seatbelts, mind your head.

Strange how gobbledegook numbs the senses.

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