Mark Ritson: The battle for branding’s soul is on

Marketing Week’s Top 100 ranking of companies that exhibit brand purpose is currently the “most read” article on our website. Rightly so; it’s a fine article about a key topic for marketers.

Ritson award winner

And yet I find myself rather conflicted. Not about the Marketing Week article itself, but the overall pursuit of brand purpose. Half of me enjoys the emotional, high end, organisation-wide concept of purpose and the way it elevates branding to a more significant, worthy place. The other part of me smells bullshit and hankers for a simpler, more direct approach to branding.

My turmoil is appropriate. Marketing, and specifically the pivotal challenge of positioning and brand building, has never been more bifurcated and contested. The warring factions on either side of the positioning debate even have captains to spur their respective sides. One is called Jim. The other is called Byron.

Jim Stengel is one of the most decorated marketers alive. As the global marketing officer at P&G he was literally the most important branding person at the most important branding company in the World. Since stepping down, Stengel has become the go-to advocate for brand purpose which he defines as a “life-improving ideal”. He argues passionately in his book “Grow” that brand purpose, or “brand ideals” as he terms the concept, not only represents the right thing to do but also provide the best route to corporate growth.

Professor Byron Sharp is monstrously clever. He has turned the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute into one of the most important centres for brand strategy in the world. His client list is a who’s-who of consumer brands – not bad for a Kiwi based in Adelaide. His book “How Brands Grow” is the first book in a decade to say anything new about brand strategy.

Both men make massive, discipline shredding claims. They just both happen to be making them at the same time and in direct, unequivocal contradiction of each other. Jim believes in the kind of differentiation that exits at the top of the top of the benefit ladder and sees this differentiation as the core of everything. Byron believes differentiation is all but impossible and challenges marketers to lower their expectations and aim at the more realistic and more valuable objective of brand distinctiveness. Byron exhorts a brand to target everyone, make it available everywhere and ensure that the distinctive assets that visually represent the brand are emphasised at every turn. Jim asks a brand to think big, to align around an ideal and then communicate that vision to consumers.

If marketing was recast as Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Jim would play Ariel to Byron’s Caliban. One looks to the clouds and dreams of poetic justice, the other lowers his gaze to the aisle and the pragmatic business of buying stuff.

Jim Stengel
Jim Stengel (assuming the role of Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest): “I drink the air before me, and return”
Byron Sharp
Byron Sharp (assuming the role of Caliban in the same ) : “The clouds methought would open, and show riches”

One might expect these contradictory marketing theories to attract two distinct sets of clients – two tribes that adhere to their respective approach and who vilify the other side.  Not true. What makes this whole debate even more fascinating is the battle for the soul of branding is not inter-corporation, but rather intra-corporation.  The companies that cite the importance of brand purpose and which were rated as the most purposeful – big players like Unilever,Coca-cola, AB Inbev and P&G – are also those actively working with Sharp’s Ehrenberg-Bass Institute on the more pragmatic, low involvement challenge of brand distinctiveness.

More than a dozen times over the past five years I have met a bemused marketer from a blue-chip consumer goods company who has asked me to resolve the strategic schizophrenia that they are forced to endure. They want to target segments, differentiate their brand and build brand equity while at the same time facing a corporate –led, Byron-spired mission to eschew all of that because “it is proven not to work”. What should they do?

I have no answer for them. I love Byron’s aggression and use of scientific rhetoric but think half his book nonsense and the other half genius. I adore Jim and his company-wide vision of brand positioning but conclude that BP, Lloyds and VW’s presence on Marketing Week’s list of the most purpose driven brands provides clear evidence that it is all nonsense.

Like Prospero before me I believe in both and the servant of neither and find myself in the somewhat uncomfortable position of being in the middle. That’s a first.



There are 3 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. LeShann 22 Oct 2015

    One has to ask, which is the half genius part in Byron’s claims? Since evidence shows Jim Stengel’s view if full of halo effects and in the end doesn’t sustain the test of time, maybe I’d start there…

    Personally the EBI’s work has opened my eyes on the importance of memory structures, and made me realize how little we focus our marketing efforts on building and reinforcing these. Most brand planning tries to uncover deep, rational consumer insights rather than understanding what makes it salient and memorable. It doesn’t mean purpose can’t work sometimes since it can build the right association (relevance, meaning etc. are nothing else than post hoc memory associations made by our brains).

    Take Always, #likeagirl does a lot of what Sharp advocates: confidence as an attribute is key to the category (a fantastic association to have for female hygiene!), its societal message is resonating with the current trends to publicize the brand, and it did it in ways that can – if sustained – become distinctively part of Always. The other (maybe more important) value of brand purpose is organizational: it structures teams, simplifies the brief, and motivates employees (most marketers hate to just think of themselves as salespeople, they need this bigger motive). For a global organization where it’s easy for local managers to deviate too much from the brand, purpose plays a role beyond its effect on consumers, and can indirectly help marketers come up with the kind of campaigns Sharp advocates. So it can work, and you can definitely find evidence of brands that did really well with it, but it doesn’t mean it should be the core of brand planning (as it is increasingly becoming lately).

    But if I was to put my money on Sharp vs Stengel, the choice is easy…

  2. KirstyJBand 26 Oct 2015

    I have to say I also believe that a middle ground is the reality of the situation. I am a firm advocate for the main principles around Byron’s theory especially in regards to things like loyalty (or no loyalty) and that outright differentiation is near impossible in the very competitive and diverse marketplace we find ourselves in today – perhaps 30 years ago this was viable. However, I do also believe that in order to be distinctive and drive the types of memory structures that are necessary to make sure your brand is not only top of mind, but favoured before others in the list of choices, you need a strong brand purpose and to stand for something in your messaging that is relevant, above a simple product benefit and engaging in its message (much like LeShann describes actually in the Always example).

    There has been a long held debate around whether art or science is the right approach to marketing and inevitably we come back to the same place every time. It’s a combination of both that delivers the magic and growth, science and art, delivered and built up over time, with each year’s investment building on the last.

    I doubt this is the last time we’ll see this debate…unless we finally become content that not everything fits precisely into boxes.

  3. Simon Sinclair 17 May 2018

    I suppose the middle course is sensible because both are true at different times with different types of brands. Not all brands behave like packaged goods. Not all packaged goods behave the same. Not all packaged goods in the same market behave the same, even. And to add to the confusion – as Byron Sharp makes very clear – the consumer isn’t even consistent in his behaviour. One day he won’t care which brand of a low involvement product he buys; the next he’ll remember an ad from ten years ago and only that brand will do. One day he’ll be a budget brand buyer and six months later he’ll treat himself to the best. Brand predilections themselves can lie dormant. Someone could be an evangelist for Jaguar cars for his whole life, but never buy one until his sixtieth birthday. Until then, he buys the cheapest second hand bangers he can. Someone else could prefer white sliced bread, but never buy it until the day he leaves his health fanatic wife.
    How on earth do you segment and target that?

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