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.
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.