my turn


The Product Makes The Brand, And Vice Versa

It has become too easy to make things complicated. And God knows, that has never been more true than it is now, and never more true for a profession than for the work of marketing consumer goods and services. 

I was at the Los Angeles Auto Show this week making the rounds, speaking to auto marketers. For some reason, maybe it was where my head was at, the conversations tended toward the circumspect: defining the role of the marketer as the one who defines the brand, who disseminates it to the masses. 

Maybe circumspection isn’t such a bad way to think for people making marketing decisions, people who, when it comes to brand management, are facing a thousand foes and bleeding from a thousand little wounds, and asking questions like “Who owns the brand? Who creates it, curates it, ushers it forth, controls what it means?”

At the L.A. show, I found myself asking, in various ways to various people:



A) whether consumer products — ones that are expensive, complex, and defined by quality, fit and finish (such as cars) — play a vastly greater role than do other kinds of products in defining what their brands actually “mean.”

B) whether, therefore, marketers for those brands — not to mention influencers, and the world at large — have vastly less influence upon what those brands “mean” than they think they do. 

I argued that if so, the role of the marketer would be to talk about the products, not to define (or encourage others to define) in some way, however abstractly, what the products “mean” and the kinds of emotions they “should” evoke. 

Assume I’m right, and you get inverse proportion setup: the closer the product is to being a commodity, the greater is the role of the marketer and agency as authors of the brand meaning. Once there was a can. Inside the can there was water, flavoring and carbon dioxide. Then there was the marketer, who slapped a logo on the can. In came creatives, who created meaning, message, and emotion. A flash of lightning, the heavens cracked, and out of the void….a brand is born. It doesn't much matter whether the stuff tastes good, bad, ugly, sweet, or salty. Many a charlatan on a horse-drawn wagon sold rattlesnake pee as Sam’s Salve. 

Yes, folks, I could take 10 people right now, put them in a room, show them a $10 scarf I bought at Twice Nice, turn around, slap a Michael Kors label on it, and make 700% profit. Even if Michael Kors doesn’t make scarves. Caveat emptor. 

But as many an auto marketer can attest, you can’t do that with a car. Woe to the brand if you do. The history of auto marketing is littered with efforts to keep legendary brands alive with borrowed products that don’t live up to some usually invented, usually arbitrary promise. It's called badge engineering. 

The marketers I spoke with this week had nuanced answers to how they saw their role as brand stewards. None are so callow as to have suggested they can create a brand the way the CMO at “Ernie’s Ersatz Hasenpfeffer Soda” could, and would. But also none said the product is the brand, in toto. And therein resides a distant family resemblance between a Big Mac and a Maserati: a sandwich and a car are inanimate objects. They mean nothing without context. If you were starving in a place with no roads, gas stations, or people to impress, which of those two objects would make your heart beat faster? You can’t eat a badge (though I could eat a badger, as I’m flying back from L.A. on a plane right now, and they are out of peanuts.)

In the auto world everyone from product designers, engineers, marketers, advertising people, agencies, the secretary and the CEO are working with an idea. Hopefully, it is tangible, one that everyone can believe in, and not someone’s optimistic fiction. In the best of all worlds, the product teams make a product that in all of its beauty and complexity, evinces that idea; and the marketers make a campaign that gives the idea a voice. But that doesn’t mean they speak over the product, or superimpose an idea on the product that anyone can see fits as well as a tutu on a shipping crate. 

Whether it's watches, airlines, sandwiches, sandals, or the company that delivered them to your door, when it all works, nobody has to invent anything, nobody’s in pain, and everyone gets along. Well, maybe not everyone.

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