When money is the object, can a brand-loving relationship last?

Oh dear. Where to begin? Let’s start with hope. It was Charles Revson, the founder of Revlon, who famously remarked that “in the factory we make lipstick, in our advertising we sell hope”. Instead of selling “Dark Red Nail Polish” like his com

According to Saatchi chief Kevin Roberts, love is all you need to sell brands: value is for the small-fry. But his theory just doesn’t ring true

Oh dear. Where to begin? Let’s start with hope. It was Charles Revson, the founder of Revlon, who famously remarked that “in the factory we make lipstick, in our advertising we sell hope”. Instead of selling “Dark Red Nail Polish” like his competitors, Revson renamed it things like “Tropic Sky Nail Enamel” – deliberately “bringing out sexual instincts in some and motherly instincts in others”. He pioneered television advertising, buying the original Who Wants To Be A Millionaire – The $64,000 Question. Revlon’s cost of goods was typically less than 10% of final retail price, with vast sums spent on advertising and other tactics such as “push money” (secret incentives to manicurists to recommend Revlon to their clients).

Last week, at the British Brands Group annual lecture, we had a new message of hope from Saatchi & Saatchi chief executive Kevin Roberts. This time however the message was not to consumers but brands owners. All you need is love: the future for your brand lies in becoming a “lovemark”.

Lovemarks make emotional connections with consumers. These emotional connections are the only “meaningful, sustainable differentiators” and are the foundation of premium prices, Roberts told us. This is important because “brands were invented for one reason only: to charge a premium price. A higher price. A higher margin”.

Making an emotional connection, he continued, “is bigger and better than more quality or more value. These are just table stakes and they’re not enough”. Business has become far too rational and analytical, he continued. “Too many businesses today are brilliant at the wrong thing”. The secret doesn’t lie in more information and more knowledge, because with this “everybody ends up with the same stuff”. What we really need is empathy and emotion.

In particular, brands need to offer mystery and stories (because “the more we know about things the less interested we are”), sensuality, and intimacy (because “the deepest thing she is looking for is a relationship, not a transaction”).

And if you get all this right, you can “inspire loyalty beyond reason. That is where the money is. Beyond price. Beyond benefit. Beyond attribute. Beyond logo”.

Hang on. Inspire loyalty beyond reason? Reflect a moment on your own life. How many times have you been inspired to give loyalty beyond reason? And how many times did this inspiration come from a thing rather than a person or a cause?

Yes, it is true that people want relationships and not transactionsâ¦when it comes to other people. People they love. But can we really use the L word so freely when it comes to commercial exchange?

Make love not war

Roberts criticised marketers for using military analogies. “Do you think the consumer wants to be targeted?”, he asked. A fair point. But perhaps consumers don’t want to be manipulated either. Remember, “the only purpose of a brand is to charge a higher price”. Which means the only purpose of all this stuff about love is to charge a higher price. So is Roberts really lifting brands out of the trap of commoditisation by adding “love” to them? Or is he attempting to commoditise our deepest human emotions for instrumental, money-making purposes? If so, is this really the future for branding?

Let’s backtrack. For some time now, two theories of branding have been battling it out. One says that brands are successful in the market because they offer buyers superior value. Sometimes this success comes in the form of higher prices, because people are prepared to pay more to get more. Sometimes it takes the form of higher volumes and market share at parity prices. Sometimes it’s a combination of both.

Either way, success depends on value, and value is defined by the customer. Value could be badging, an emotional connection, convenience, quality and durability, stand-out innovation, mystery, sensuality. Or lower prices. In fact, it could be anything. That’s for the customer to define and the marketer to discover and to deliver.

The other theory says that the purpose of the brand is to charge more; that the ability to charge more comes not from product attributes (which are mere table stakes) but from emotional extras; and that if you want to create these emotional extras, you need great communication because, as Roberts said, “great communication works inherently at the emotional level and 85% of our decisions are made emotionally”.

The difference between the two theories is that the first one is based on observation of fact, and is thoroughly daunting. Having accepted it, you’ve still got loads of hard work to do. You still have to discover what value really means to your particular customer. And you still have to deliver it.

The other theory is a sales pitch. It’s not based on evidence. It’s based on hope: the client’s hope that there is indeed a magic secret behind superior margins and it’s actually quite easy to wave this magic wand. Simply pick up the phone and talk to your nearest creative advertising agency.

The content of this sales pitch is also important. You need to inspire hope by talking glowingly about success stories – iPod, Harley Davidson, Starbucks, Zara, anything. It doesn’t really matter if these stories have nothing to do with your theory because their hopeful emotions will rub off (and, remember, 85% of all decisions – including client decisions – are made on emotions).

Take one of Robert’s examples: Toyota’s relaunch of the Camry, the US’s biggest-selling car. The new Camry has, Roberts told us, 74 “consumer meaningful innovations”. Its list price is being reduced by $1,000 (&£534). At the same time, its dealer margin is $800 (&£427) higher and Toyota’s margin is $2,000 (&£1,070) higher. What’s more, its hybrid engine means its miles-per-gallon score is outstanding. So everybody wins. “That’s the future of marketing!” declared Roberts.

Toyota’s driving force

He’s quite right. It is. But anybody who knows anything about Toyota knows this astonishing win-win achievement has got nothing to do with “love” and everything to do with Toyota’s relentless focus on detail, information, knowledge and process: the very things that Roberts airily dismissed as “mere table stakes” but which also mean it can now make a better quality car using just half the man hours of rivals like Ford and General Motors.

Roberts started his lecture with a scary picture of the onward march of own-label, discounting and commoditisation. Brands have to fight back, he said, with an “escalated counter attack”. So here is your $64,000 brand-building question. Is margin-obsessed “lovemarking” really the answer to new value-oriented competitors?

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