I just read a piece in The Economist called Bursting the Branding Bubble, a review of a new book called Branding Only Works on Cattle, by Jonathan Salem Baskin. Full disclosure, I haven’t read the book. From the Economist article I gather Baskin calls current marketing strategies into question, though the hyperbolic title leads one to think he’s calling for an Agent Orange-style cleansing of all brand marketing efforts. From the article:
In chatty, bumptious style, Mr Baskin calls the bluff of some traditional branding assumptions… He also waves away evidence that brain scans reveal high levels of brand awareness, responding that those brand-aware brains don’t necessarily go on to buy the product. “All we can say for sure is that branding might help create awareness, and that awareness is generally better than non-awareness.”
Now, contrast that with a recent book I have read, Martin Lindstrom’s Buyology. Lindstrom’s book dives into the neuromarketing that Baskin seems to be dismissing. These are two extremely intelligent professionals who have a strong difference of opinion on the issue of brands. And their thoughts and ideas vary greatly from that of Naomi Klein in her influential book, No Logo; who approaches things far differently from Rob Walker and his terrific book, Buying In. I could throw half a dozen other names and books (from Seth Godin to Joseph Jaffe) into the mix and things become even less clear. What’s the right approach? What should marketers, and consumers, be doing and thinking?
Well, I think I just had an epiphany. Branding is a lot like religion -ultimately it’s based on faith. Sure, you can try to dress it up in scientific methodologies, data mining or other Intelligent Design-style quantitative research, but th0se are created just to give us something to cling to in our times of unknowning and uncertainty.
The truth of the matter is, if it was purely scientific, every body would build brands as strong as Coke and Apple and every brand would be built on campaigns like “Priceless” or “Just Do It”. But that’s not the case because the variables involved in marketing are so numerous and so complex. Does branding work? If you’re a marketer it’s impossible to prove – and even if you could prove it works, how do you know what part is working? Did a consumer by the product because of the ad, or because of the coupon or because they just got a check for $20 from Grandma for their birthday or because it’s not the brand their mom uses?
Branding then becomes an excercise in Pascal’s Wager. If I believe branding works and it doesn’t, I’ve lost little in holding that belief. But if I don’t believe it works, and in reality it does, then I’ve lost out big time.
I think anyone serious about branding should read all the authors I’ve mentioned above and strive to gain a greater understanding of all viewpoints – just like a good theologian would look to understand Christianity and Judiasm as well as the Muslim and Hindu religions (among others). But at some point we need bring this theory closer to our real world needs. We need to understand the un-understandable. We need a brand rabbi to help us understand the impenetrable mysteries of the cryptic tomes and the enigmatic actions of the consumer.
We need people like Grant McCracken. Grant’s a cultural anthropologist and a high priest to brand marketers, interpreting and giving meaning to the mysteries of marketing. Yes, you can read his blog, join his community, and read his books. But ultimately, you’re going to have to go our your own spiritual branding journey. When you finish your Vision Quest perhaps you’ll be ready to become what McCracken calls a CCO - a Chief Culture Officer.
McCracken has seen, and writes about, the critical mistakes corporations make when they don’t understand culture – the part of branding you simply can’t ‘figure out’ by looking at a cross-tabulated excel sheet full of data.
The book comes out in December and I’m very excited to read it. Yes, I’ve read, and enjoyed, some of Grant’s earlier books and yes, I’m a friend of Grant’s, but this book seems to really be timed perfectly. As a new breed of statistics-driven CMOs (the Bill James’ of the marketing world) rise to the top, we’re in danger of losing some of the risk-taking that comes with a leap of faith. Perhaps that is the role the CCO will fill, to act on hunches, to look into the heart instead of the mind and to make million dollar decisions based not on numbers, but on the subtle changes in potato chip purchases by housewives from Burbank to Bangor.