Branding is not an exercise in spin

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What is the function of branding? I ask because April witnessed two major case studies from big British companies that either represented or repudiated best branding practice – depending on your answer to the question above.

If we take branding to be simply communication and spin then we should agree with the marketing experts who concluded BP’s recent advertising campaign on the first anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster was “astoundingly shrewd”. Seen from this perspective, BP was right to commission a series of expensive print ads that pre-empted any criticism of their actions with positive, conciliatory images of a big blue sky, crystal blue waters around the Deepwater Horizon and the heartfelt – yet humble – strapline proclaiming: ’Our commitment continues’. And then there were the positive facts presented in the copy: no more oil has flowed into the Gulf since the cap was fitted, 99% of the waters have been reopened and almost £8bn has been spent on the clean-up.

All true. But if a man convicted of domestic abuse took out a classified ad to declare that he had not beaten his wife since, that her bruises had now healed (pretty much), and that he had spent 20 quid on flowers as an apology – would you feel better about the man?

If we take a deeper, more complete view of branding the question for BP is whether channeling millions into corporate communications at this time actually damages rather than rebuilds brand equity. There may not be any more oil being pumped into the Gulf – but millions of gallons still remain.

Imagine a company announcing a big new brand relaunch without anyone to actually lead it – that’s BA’s current approach

The US government claims the “vast majority” of oil has already been dispersed but independent marine experts at several of the leading Gulf Universities assert that between 25% and 50% of the oil remains. Whatever the proportion, the problem has yet to be resolved. Even the independent administrator of BP’s compensation fund, Ken Feinberg, puts the most optimistic estimate of a final resolution into the middle of next year.

And that’s only the oil. What of the other unresolved issues surrounding BP? For starters there are a multitude of factors that allowed BP to get into this situation in the first place. Whether these are traced to BP or to the strategic partners it is now taking to court, there is a culture of mistakes and malpractice to fix before any advertising could or should be contemplated. If we take a deeper view of branding, isn’t the way a company operates more important than its communications?

There are two ways to open a pub. You can paint a beautiful sign that says “The Coach and Horses” and then as people come in you can apologise for not having any beer or tables or food. Or you can get your pub ready: get the beer, the tables, the food and then hang up your sign. Your approach depends, I guess, on your perspective. Do you brand from outside in, or inside out? Do you clean up every one of the millions of gallons of oil that you pumped into the Gulf of Mexico first, or do you start showing ads that give the impression the ocean is clean before any such achievement has occurred? Or to come back to our opening question: Is branding what you do? Or is it what you say you do?

Take British Airways. We are reliably informed it is about to embark on a massive brand relaunch this year. The company is keen to stress the campaign will begin with an internal stage before switching to communications. But branding from the inside should mean more than ticking the “internal marketing” box and then getting on with briefing the agencies – especially for a beleaguered brand like BA. There are at least three strategic imperatives to be addressed before even a whiff of a communications brief can be attempted:

First, sort out your union problems. Yes, things have improved with the unions since you paid Willie Walsh £400,000 and promoted him out of the CEO’s job for being so awesome. But you still have to actually put pen to paper with the Unions and end three years of industrial action that has blighted your operations, image, morale and profitability. That’s a bigger brand priority than communications and until it’s done any relaunch is nonsense.

Second, forget about communications and fix your service satisfaction which is probably in the toilet right now. I say probably because your own published customer recommendation score only dipped by 2% in the past year and is actually up on pre-strike levels according to your data. That’s odd because in the Skytrax independent survey of airline satisfaction you went from being the highest ranked airline in 2006 to not even making the top 20 in 2010.

And finally get a marketing director. If you needed any confirmation of how dire British Airways current approach to branding has got – imagine a company announcing a big new brand relaunch without anyone to actually lead it. Maybe appointing an executive to manage the brand should supersede any announcements on future brand strategy? Or maybe BA’s idea about branding is a bit different from mine.

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