Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What Chief Branding Officer's Don't Know

I'm going to attempt to write this with as much sensitivity as I can muster. After all, it's not without foundation that I've been labeled as much for my brutality as irreverence. What can I say? I'm a guy who calls 'em like he sees 'em and sometimes I don't like what I see.

I recently had a conversation with a very high level branding officer of a very high profile Fortune 100 company. I don't want to step on any toes here, because truth be told, this person was very kind and extremely genuine. Totally well-meaning and, judging by the tenor of our conversation, a true believer in New Age marketing. For the uninitiated, New Age marketing is that which places a premium on engaging with end users through social media, surveys and megatons of research.

You know, stuff for which agencies are totally unaccountable.

The purpose of my conversation with this Chief Branding Officer (CBO) -- code-named Jordan to keep things anonymous -- was to find out if the company had any real brand strategy to speak of. Actually, the purpose was to find out if the company even had a brand strategy. Most don't, which is why I call them. It's what I do. But that's another story.

Jordan was very amiable, asking me why I would ask a question like that. "Because I'm on your web site right now, and for the life of me, all I see is a logo. Not even a tagline. No reason for anyone to choose your brand. Nothing. Is there a brand strategy?"

Keep in mind that I'm talking to a CBO -- the highest level there is in this type of corporation, which happens to be international in scope and service. A Wall Street darling. A major player in its field. And with all that, this is the answer I get:

"Our branding agency will be presenting the brand strategy to us in the coming weeks."

When I got back into my chair, I couldn't help but inquire as to who that agency might be. It was, as I suspected, a major international hack branding agency whose failing works I've previously lambasted here. Who else would have the cojones to string along a powerhouse client -- for years -- with absolutely no tangible deliverables while charging the client millions for the privilege?

I've grown accustomed to the millions-for-hackery branding scams that go on in the boardrooms of corporate America. But the real shocker was that Jordan couldn't even come close to expressing what the company's brand strategy was. Not even a hint. Jordan wouldn't even take a shot at it, which could only mean one thing: Jordan had absolutely no idea what a real brand strategy is. One look at the company's materials only reinforced my suspicion: Logos were everywhere, but no place could one find any message conveying why the company should be perceived as "the only solution to its prospects' problems."

I'm often asked about high-level, Fortune 1000 clients. "Aren't they more knowledgeable and sophisticated when it comes to branding?" The answer, sadly, is no. Not by a long shot. In fact, when it comes to branding -- real branding -- I'm consistently dismayed to find that in general, the bigger the name, the less they know about branding. But when you think about it, it makes sense:

When you're small and bucks are sparse, you do everything you can to establish and protect your market share. You make sure people know you for the right reasons, whenever and wherever you communicate with them, because losing market share means losing the food off your table. But when you're big -- really big -- you get fat. Really fat. You get so fat that you forget what it's like to be hungry; you pay people to be hungry for you. Instead of thriving on grit and determination, you order lattés and conference reports. You become detached from who you are and why you are because, win or lose, you know you can always fire the agency, but you'll never go hungry.

When you're that high up in the ivory tower, the denial gets so thick that you can barely see your way down to the golf course. It's happened to so many big brands that I've lost count. It's happening to brands like Kodak and Maytag and Yahoo and so many others I've written about here.

Now the long, slow decline will begin to take its toll on Jordan's Fortune 100 company. I suppose the good news is, as with all degeneratively diseased patients, Jordan won't even realize the impending doom until it's much too late -- and the stock in the pension plan is worthless. But Jordan doesn't believe that. The company, it would seem, is too big to fail.


Blogger RA said...

I think this is the same throughout brand marketing departments.

Marketers in an organization have one of two objectives: get promoted to build their resumes and move on, or protect their annual budgets and stay in place. The former look for agencies/in-house colleagues to execute (I mean, achieve a short-term success); the latter to provide creative and make them appear to be evolving ... and to execute (I mean, replace the agency).

There's a world of great, independent communications professionals out there right now who would deliver great strategy and execution at two-fifths the cost. But no company CMO will be fired for bringing in a name-brand agency. (And shareholders, raised on pro sports, expect it: If you're not hiring a multioffice conglomerate, then you're not trying!)

Alternative ways of doing business are still just that, "Alternative." I hope that we can work from the outside to change the model.

2:50 PM  
Blogger trishcardona said...

I'm encouraged.
Here I am, little ol' (mommy) blogger me trying to define and establish my brand. And fearing that I'm failing miserably.
It seems I'm not alone. That is we're defining and establishing our brand. But I don't believe I'm failing as miserably as those clueless idiots.
Go me!

11:35 PM  

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