Pointless slogans are a waste of time

It started nine years ago. I can remember the actual week when it all began because I was teaching brand management at London Business School to a class of MBA students and we spent the first hour of class discussing it. That morning Unilever announced that it was introducing a new corporate logo featuring a smooth, rounded U made from an amalgam of 24 icons representing all the businesses that it was engaged in. I beamed the new design onto the screen behind me and my class debated its merits.

Mark Ritson

There was no doubt that the new logo was an improvement on the old square thing that Unilever had previously used. Wolff Olins had done an excellent job. But the bigger question related to the strategy behind the logo. Unilever had not previously existed in the consumer’s mind and was now committed to not only changing its logo but also its brand architecture, pumping brand equity into its corporate name for the first time. Perhaps, my class mused, it was an attempt to save money, exert control at corporate level, combat private labels, aid expansion in new markets or build a single CSR platform.

Whatever the rationale, Unilever soon applied its new logo to its packaging and advertising along with a new corporate slogan “Bringing vitality to life”.

Think about that message for a second because it’s a fascinatingly mundane bit of marketing. Bringing vitality to life is literally meaningless. It’s like saying that you are hydrating water or opening the aperture. It’s bloody obvious and totally pointless.

You might have expected the combined might of Unilever’s marketing teams to come up with something a bit better. But there is a classic marketing explanation behind the bland emptiness of Unilever’s corporate approach. Marketers are trained from an early age to go after a tighter target segment and ignore mass marketing.

A tighter target segment gives you a distinct group of consumers who are usually buying a very specific competitor – meaning you can usually position your brand on specific consumer needs and against a very short list of potential rivals. This makes for tight positioning, better execution and superior results.

But when you try to position a corporate brand like Unilever across the world, across more than 40 brands, across its combined target consumers and against competitor brands, you get the opposite result. You get empty, pointless stuff like “bringing vitality to life”.

And, of course, it is not alone. As more and more brands have moved from a house of brands to an endorsed approach in which their formerly silent corporate brands have been activated as a consumer entity, we have seen the same empty results each time.

There’s no greater fan of Procter & Gamble than yours truly – it literally invented brand management. But its current efforts are a sad echo of its formerly great heritage.

It was impossible not to be moved by Wieden+Kennedy’s emotional “Thank you, Mom” ad from 2012 in which mothers are shown coaching their children to greatness at the London Olympics. But step back from the lovely execution and look at the message behind it. P&G spent hundreds of millions of pounds to point out to the world that mums are awesome and you should love yours. Once again, the generality of targeting, combined with the enormous range of competitors that it faces, multiplied by the diaspora of brands being amalgamated produced inanity.

It’s the same story at Reckitt Benckiser where the marketing maestros behind the successful brand management of everything from Strepsils to Finish could only manage “the power behind our powerbrands” when challenged to come up with a slogan for its increasingly exposed corporate brand.

And now we have Johnson & Johnson. I thought we’d reached the nadir of inanity but I was wrong. J&J is to spend a fortune in 2013 to promote its corporate brand with pictures of people kissing babies and the message “Love. It’s the most powerful thing on the planet”. No shit. Love is certainly a lot more powerful than all this corporate branding that’s going on.

I despair for the big brands. They’ve collectively lost the brand building plot. And so I say to small independent FMCG brands that it’s your time to go after them. Focus on your consumer brands, target a specific consumer segment and position against your formerly untouchable rivals that are blunted by their corporate brand inanity. Pick up your sling, Goliath has forgotten how to fight.

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