Home > Identity and Branding, Messaging > Top-down branding: Reports of death are greatly exaggerated

Top-down branding: Reports of death are greatly exaggerated

Is branding dead?

Is branding dead?

I attended the MarketingProfs webinar “What Matters Now in Branding: Ten Ideas to Get Refocused” (membership req’d). Jonathan Salem Baskin presented some good content and was thought-provoking.

However, Baskin’s main point–one that most of those Ten Ideas were based on–was that top-down branding is dead.

Top-down branding is when (according to Baskin) the company connects its name/products/services to thoughts, concepts, and emotions, and presents those connections to its customers and prospects through media, advertising, Twitter, customer service, presentations, etc.

Baskin believes that successful “new branding” is letting the brand organically find itself through reality, changing context, and community that will be driven by customer behavior and customers’ actions.

I have a lot to say about his various points, but foremost: If you want to be a successful marketer, do not believe this. It is false.

The worst part of this advice is that it kind of looks like it’s true. Top-down branding efforts have been less successful in recent years. Customer loyalty is down. Brands that were once strong are weaker. Social media is all the rage; branding has been replaced by “conversations” and “engagement.”

The most important thing about branding, however, has not changed. I’m from the Ries & Trout school, and the most important thing about a brand is to own a concept or phrase in the customer’s mind. (Baskin says that brands cannot do this; he’s wrong.) When you think facial tissue, you think Kleenex; when you think networking, you think Cisco; when you think about high-end cameras you think Canon or Nikon. Even catchphrases — “the choice of a new generation,” “the ultimate driving machine,” and (my recent least-favorite-tagline-ever) “the difference is drinkability” get ahold of an association/concept in your brain and won’t let go. That’s the way to own the market and affect customer behavior, and top-down branding is essential to that.

Baskin’s #1 point was “tell the truth” — that being ingenuous won’t help a brand, such as when the oil companies say they’re green. In general, I agree that one will have an easier time when you can put your money where your mouth is — when your products and services are actually as good as you say they are, and when they have no flaws. But what if your products and services DO have flaws?

Chevron created a famous “People Do” campaign to showcase their environmental concern. Commercials talking about saving butterfly mating grounds or marshlands or eagle habitats were all over the airwaves. According to Grahame Dowling’s book Creating Corporate Reputations, 34% of the viewers of the People Do ad featuring the eagle habitat had a more favorable opinion of Chevron after the ad, and 75% of the viewers said they were more likely to buy gasoline from Chevron (p. 177). The message was that Chevron was an oil company that cares — and they owned that concept in the customers’ minds.

The keys to this successful branding were simple: repetition and consistency. Chevron’s environmental ads started running back in the 1970’s, and grew to a 71% awareness rate. Even today, although very few people believe oil companies care about the environment, I’d bet that many still believe that Chevron isn’t as bad as the other oil companies — and Chevron has been rewarded with a 22% sales increase (p. 178).

The truth you tell, while it has to be true, is yours to tell. If you’re targeting teens and hipsters, the Burger King mascot (that creepy, crazy King) lets people know that Burger King is the fast-food place for them. If you’re targeting kids, Ronald McDonald tells consumers that Mickey D’s is kid-friendly. Your products and services must fulfill your promises to the consumer, but when they do, top-down branding can work.

This is by no means the only element of a successful top-down branding campaign. (For instance, if your brand is already firmly wedged in your prospects’ minds, it’s almost impossible to change–witness the death of Smith Corona PC’s, because Smith Corona is a brand for typewriters, not PCs.)

But don’t give up directing your message just because people say you can’t do it in today’s social-media-centric world.

  1. May 21, 2009 at 1:01 pm
  2. May 21, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    Paul, thanks so much for your excellent questions during the webinar, and for your analysis here.

    As you know, my primary point is that we marketers can’t ‘wedge a brand firmly in prospects’ minds’ (to use your phrase), because 1) they’ll learn if it’s not true, and 2) no amount of retention, consistency, or other creative blather moves them to purchase.

    Your Chevron example is spot on, only for my point, not yours: believing that Chrevon ‘isn’t as bad as the other oil companies’ doesn’t help it sell gas, support its stock price, etc. And that’s the good side of the equation; for all of its PR brilliance, the fact that it’s not TRULY better than the others makes whatever it does to claim otherwise seem even less true.

    We marketers must not give up being creative, insightful, and dedicated, but I maintain that we need to redefine the ‘what’ of our branding efforts. That’s why I wrote an entire book about it(http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0446178012/ref=nosim/theplanningsh-20), and I blog about it daily at Dim Bulb (http://dimbulb.typepad.com). I encourage you and your readers to visit, and let’s keep the conversation going.

    I’ve never had my ideas declared ‘dangerous’ before. So thanks for that!


  3. May 25, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    Thanks for the comment, JSB! Pretty soon you’ll get a reputation for being dangerous — the Lenny Bruce of marketing.

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