Mark Ritson: Brand equity must drive communications

In the past decade, several big consumer brands – in particular Stella Artois, Cadbury and Guinness – lost sight of the priority of branding over communications. Put simply, the advertising tail began to wag the branding dog to the detriment of long-term brand equity.

I highlight Stella, Cadbury and Guinness because their loss of direction was particularly egregious and each is now also exhibiting a gratifying return to form with a renewed focus on brand-driven communications.

In the case of Stella Artois, we saw a huge deviation from the original premium authenticity of the brand and its “reassuringly expensive” tagline to an entirely irrelevant series of ads shot in the Riviera in the style of late 1960s French cinema. The ads might have been beautiful, but they had very little to do with the mighty Stella Artois and its branding pedigree.

This new approach coincided with the arrival of Mother in 2008. Clearly, the cool boys and girls at the ad agency felt that French was better than Belgian, 1960 was a sexier time than the 14th Century and retro-movie stars made for better TV ads than Flemish brewers. All perhaps true, but entirely unconnected to the Stella Artois brand.

So belated congratulations to Stella marketing director James Watson for his new campaign. The outdoor and print work, also created by Mother, is now bang on brand and will focus on the 600-year history of the beer and drive awareness of the brand’s signature icon, the Chalice. The taglines, including jewels such as ‘We were brewing beer in Belgium before Belgium was Belgian’, and ‘Master Brewers required. 600 years experience needed’ – are exactly what the brand has been missing.

It’s a similar situation at Guinness. The brand lost its way a decade ago because its marketers started to believe it was an advertising vehicle that also occasionally sold some stout. We had a series of ever more clever, ever more expensively mounted TV work for the brand from hot creative directors with a vision for their advertising but no focus on the brand.

A refocus on branding basics might be one of the few silver linings of the recession we are in

The nadir came in 2007 with the £10m Tipping Point commercial in which the population of a remote Argentinean village was shown toppling a variety of household objects in an elaborate game of super-sized dominos. The brand manager in charge at the time claimed it was an attempt to “show an entire village coming together to create an awe-inspiring spectacle of toppling objects”. One helpful marketing critic (me) pointed out that the whole campaign was “total madness”.

But all credit to Guinness. The cool film directors and pretentious South American locations have been replaced by communications strategies derived from the Guinness brand equity. In the next month, for example, Guinness will drive a global social media push around creating the biggest St Patrick’s Day celebration around the brand. That’s more like it.

And finally there is Cadbury, which lost its way partly as a result of the success of the Gorilla campaign from 2007. The ad was a sensation but one that then led Cadbury to put its communications wagon in front of the branding and product horses as the creative talent at Fallon ran amok with the brand.

Dancing eyebrows and airport trucks followed and then the even more tangential Spots v Stripes Olympic work.

But Cadbury is also turning the corner. Its new 10-year brand platform ‘Joyville’ is bang on the brand and, as marketing director Matthew Williams puts it, focuses on the “core truth of the product” – that eating chocolate brings joy.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that each of these brands lost their way in the heady days of 2007 when optimism was at its peak and money was no object. And it’s equally unsurprising that the austerity of the post-global financial crisis climate has seen these brands get their priorities back in perspective. A refocus on branding basics might be one of the few silver linings of the recession we are in.

Let’s hope this is a new era for branding, one that promotes heritage over high concept and which prioritises provenance over production values. It could also prove to be a period in which brand managers take back the control of their brands and eschew the wanton creativity of the concept obsessed agency.

Yes, creativity is important, but only when it is driven by a clear and unwavering origin from the brand itself. Left unchecked, as it was for a time at Stella, Cadbury and Guinness, it produces gloriously attractive irrelevance and generic communications.

The proof of that is in the pudding. Back in 2007, in an alternate universe, you could have easily run the Gorilla campaign for Guinness, the French Riviera campaign for Cadbury and the Argentinean hillside ad for Stella Artois. Now imagine Cadbury talking about Belgium or Stella sponsoring St Patrick’s Day.

See what I mean?

It’s time to go back to the brand and let that become the basis for our marketing inspiration.

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