For the past 20 years, a fundamental fraud has been operating in the world of marketing. It has penetrated the minds of consumers, indoctrinated marketers, spawned a generation of agencies and fooled even some of the sharpest, hardest chief executives. But now, the game is up. It’s time for brands to get real again.
Around the start of the Nineties a new school of thought emerged about brands. It came from graphic design; from people who realised that there was a great opportunity to establish a connection between businesses and consumers through the visual language of (what was then called) corporate identity. Brands such as Orange and First Direct led the way. They wrapped themselves in engaging identities that positioned them not as distant, corporate businesses but as the consumer’s best friend.
In these early cases this approach was wholly justifiable – both Orange and First Direct were supported by genuinely different product or service offers that deserved to be brought to people’s attention in a distinctive, engaging way. Their influence was so profound that their identities extended beyond the logo and started to shape the look and feel, and tone of voice, of a broader range of consumer touchpoints. And therein the concept of brand personality was born. And from there, the fraud began.
Too many people have been duped by the notion that the key, differentiating element of a brand is its personality, because for more than a decade they’ve seen a correlation between brands with distinctive personalities and businesses that have forged ahead. Virgin, Apple, BMW have all helped to perpetuate this view. The point too many miss is that it is not the intangible personality that really differentiates these brands so much as the tangible product beneath it. But by ignoring this they have given permission to other brands that do not actually offer any tangible advantage. They simply promise one in the way they look and talk.
As a consequence, the world is full of businesses trading on a competitive advantage that goes no deeper than the veneer of advertising and design. And we’re starting to see the profound consequences of that in a very real way.
Consider, for example, Northern Rock. Just a year ago, millions of people considered it one of the UK’s strongest financial service brands. Its friendly, engaging personality, and its apparent commitment to its home communities in the North-east, persuaded many to trust it with their life savings and futures. Today, those people have discovered that the brand was merely a facade over an unstable, unsustainable proposition that failed to deliver against its promises.
Northern Rock is not the only one for whom this may be true. The dominant mobile telecommunication brands are just as guilty of building on differentiated style rather than substance. They are asking consumers to choose from a colour palette rather than anything more meaningful. When Orange launched, it offered the innovation of per-second billing, now it offers, well, just orange.
People are finally waking up to the fraud. Catalysed by Northern Rock, the impact of the sub-prime crisis and other similar events, people are learning to separate fantasy from reality and are putting in the effort to ensure the delivery of the promise is at least as strong as the one the brand personality tries to make.
For brand owners and their advisors, this means that the scope and focus of consideration must now be broader and more profound than before. Brands need to consider the fundamental principles of their offer in terms of the tangible innovation and differentiation that they provide.
They must think about their added value not just in terms of superficial design but as a complete equation of product, service and holistic experience. There of course remains a hugely important role for brand personality in helping a business in its dialogue with audiences – none of us wants to return to the dull, grey, corporate world of 20 years ago – but personality alone is not enough. Those brands or agencies that are unable to raise their game to this level will flounder – their game is finally up. The fraud unmasked, a new breed of stronger, more differentiated, more value-added replacements will surely emerge. vJim Prior is managing partner of