Flipping The Branding Model Upside Down (Or How Everything I Knew About Branding Turned Out To Be False)

By: superadmin Tuesday February 9, 2016 comments Tags: Branding, Social Media, Building a Brand

By JR Little 

JR Little is a top media professional with over fifteen years experience in marketing and advertising, across multiple sectors with a wide range of Fortune 500 companies. From technology to finance to healthcare to consumer goods, JR has helped to shape and develop the messages and brands of some of the biggest companies in the world, around the world.

Having started his career on a farm in rural North Carolina, JR quickly realized that the farmer''s life wasn''t for him, and moved into media and advertising. He found his niche in helping companies to adopt a data-centric (rather than brand-centric) approach and by listening to consumers - to intimately understand and consistently meet their needs and desires.

JR currently lives in London, England, where he works as Global Head of Innovation for media agency Carat. He holds degrees from the University of North Carolina, Pratt Institute, and Columbia University.

Check out JR''s latest book "Listening Brands: How Data is Rewriting the Rules of Branding

How Everything I Knew About Branding Turned Out To Be False

I have something important to tell you.

I’ve talked about this before amongst friends, but recently I’ve decided to share more about my life at a big branding agency and the way that we approached branding back in those days. Looking at it today, everything we did seems completely backward.

Sure — I can justify it by saying it was all we knew how to do. But wow, does it ever look odd from where I sit now.

We’re going to look closely at the way I used to approach brand building, the role of an agency in that process, and where we are — or where we should be — today.  If you’re feeling like your company is wasting money, or if you’re working with an agency that’s struggling to produce a return on investment, this article will explain a whole lot to you...or at least make you ask yourself some tough questions.

Remember the movie “Back to the Future”? It’s time to get into your sleek, silver DeLorean automobile and set the date to 2007.                                                  

The “Old” Days (Not So Long Ago)

From 2007 to 2012, I was working for a top branding agency with offices all over the world. We were the best of the best, with a track record of branding some of the world’s largest companies.  But the recession was approaching fast, and it hit the United States and Europe hard. It was a pivotal time for everyone around the world —one that we’re still recovering from today, as interest rates are at all-time lows and are only rising at a snail’s pace.  Over those years, the agency started to struggle. Fewer and fewer client briefs were landing on our desk. For a long time, I couldn’t figure out why. Part of it had to do with the economy, of course, but there was more behind it than that.

Client requests were becoming miniscule: asking for logos, labels and names for new products, and that was about it. No brand analysis or strategy documents, nothing even approaching the level of big-agency involvement.

In those days, especially in pre-recession 2007-2008, we had a very detailed, specific way of working with clients. We would basically tell them, “If you’ll allow us to find out what your brand is really about—what makes it compelling, true and differentiating—then we can help make your business successful.”  

The thing is, we didn’t have a great way to back that statement up with any proof. The only way we could prove it was to talk about the “great brands” in a rather anecdotal way. Oddly enough, this never seemed to bother our clients. They trusted us. I think everyone—branding agencies and their clients alike — had an unspoken agreement that no one knew a better way to build a brand at the time.

Our process with clients — no matter who they were or what industry they were in — always went something like this...

The overarching goal was to come up with a concise description of what made that particular company compelling. What differentiated it within its industry category? What would make people want it? After we knew the answers to those questions, we wrapped a bit of personality around that with imagery and tone.

  • We’d start the brand strategy process with “desk research,” as we called it: looking around on the Internet — analyst reports, industry trends and not much else.
  • Then we would look at the competition and try to understand what they were doing that seemed to work.
  • Last, we’d do some stakeholder interviews, which pretty much meant talking to a few people at the client’s company to see what they thought the brand should be about.

Sometimes we would also interview consumers or hold focus groups. These would be made up of about 30 consumer interviews and three focus groups, which seemed to be the answer from small clients to big ones.

Look online, chat with leaders, chat with consumers, hold some groups: that was our rigorous process.

Finally, we’d prepare a “brand model,” which is one page with words describing what the brand stood for: a statement about its purpose. Often these things ended up looking like circles with di erent layers of copy—surely you have seen one before. If not, do a quick ‘brand model’ search. This brand model was supposed to magically guide the company toward becoming this amazing, compelling brand that people love and want. It was intended to guide internal communications as well as external communications. If companies would just get the right model, all would work out in the end and the company would thrive.

That’s a lot for a one-pager to accomplish!

Speaking from a place now of complete humility, it’s hard to quantify how much emphasis was placed on the brand model. We provided it to the client’s advertising agency, public relations agency and people within the company: anyone who might need to be able to talk about the                                                        

You can probably guess what happened along the way. Remember the game of telephone you played in school? One person would whisper something into their friend’s ear, and by the time the message snaked its way around the classroom, it would end up as something completely different from what it was when it started.

That’s often what happened with the brand model. The message would get diluted, changed, possibly mangled. It would be interpreted and reinterpreted—for a fee, of course. Months, even years, were wasted trying to find a few words that would set the company on the right course to success.                          

The Scariest Part...

And what were we using to develop this brand model? This is the truly scary part.


And I mean, a lot of intuition. To this day, I’m not even sure I could tell you what that means exactly. We had a lot of smart and creative people that could “figure out” what the brand needed with raw intuition.

Clients were paying a lot of money for our intuition. They were put on hefty retainers and paid a fortune for not much more than a piece of paper, some imagery, templates and a logo...they always needed a logo.

Does this process sound familiar to you if you’re a company or part of an agency?

It wasn’t just our fees that our clients were paying. This brand model continued to cost the client money by creating revenue streams for all the other agencies and employees involved in the branding process. When we handed the brand model over to the advertising agency, for example, the ad agency would often say, “This doesn’t quite work for us, so we’re going to have to reinterpret the message.” And then they’d create this big, cumbersome process to “reinterpret” the brand—getting paid for their intuition.

The game of “telephone” continued. Same with the public relations, digital, experiential, media agencies. Everyone charging for more ‘creative strategy’ and branding.

All of this busyness equaled more profits and revenue streams for these agencies and the conglomerates that owned them, but not much in the way of tangible results for the client.

On the agency side, the profit margin was high. But it wasn’t enough once the financial crisis hit. Yes, the agency I worked at was hurt by the fact that companies couldn’t afford to pay us anymore, but more than that, it was hurt because we didn’t have anything more than our intuition to offer clients. We had nothing of measurable value, and that reality was revealed in stark terms.

  • We couldn’t advise them as to how to come out of the recession with anything more than what our “gut” told us.
  • We couldn’t advise them on how to adapt to the increasing digitalization of the world.
  • We had no point of view on social media.

And it wasn’t just us; it was all the branding agencies. The agency I worked for, which had been so in demand, became a place that just designed logos and provided design guidelines.

At least it felt that way.

Please don’t get me wrong. This type of brand work has a purpose, but its impact has greatly diminished with the rise of the digital age.                                                           

Digital Begins Its Influence

When I look back, I can see that during those years I spent at that traditional branding agency—again, that was from 2007 to 2012—digital advertising started to become more sophisticated and social media began to scale. It became more important and integrated into what companies and agencies were doing. What’s so great is that when you run or serve a digital ad or when you do anything at all in the digital space in terms of advertising, you’re also discovering something at the same time.

It’s not as if you simply put an ad on a website and it just sits there, staring at the consumer. When they click on that ad, you know about it, and you know when they didn’t click on it. You’re getting a straightforward data response telling you a lot of information, like the number of people responding to the ad, the type of people who are looking at it, the type of people not responding to the ad, what else they’ve been looking at, and what other things they like.

Suddenly, the brand-building process has become a whole new landscape, one loaded with fact-based insights instead of intuition.

As a result, the entire branding process can be flipped around. No intuition needed, either.

If you’re working with an intelligent, digital- and social media-savvy agency, then they have the ability to see very deeply into consumer behavior. They can observe consumers you think you want and consumers who already want you. They can tell you what their interests and needs are, and where and how they move online. They can tell you what they say, the tone, the imagery they like, the celebrities they follow.

If you can imagine it, you can see it.

Looking at this data and really being able to interpret it can tell you what your brand should be saying and how your brand should be acting. You don’t need intuition anymore. The agencies that have depended so much on their creative intuition—their charisma, basically—are becoming less relevant.

Even Sir Martin Sorrell, the CEO of WPP plc. and sort of a hero in our industry, has made this point. It was around the time I left the traditional branding agency that he started saying that the industry was shifting from “Mad Men” to “Math Men.” Why? Because the science and the associated rigor is now more important, more robust and more advanced than the artistic, creative side of the agency equation. And if you look at WPP’s annual report, you can see that those agencies that are digital and data based are making up a huge portion of their revenue. In contrast, the companies that are heavily based on intuition-based creativity are eating into overall profits.  

Building a Brand Today

How should a company build a brand today? Reverse the process.

Do the opposite of what you used to do — seriously.

  1. If I were to break it down into the simplest possible steps, it might look like this:
  2. Use your current digital and social campaigns to figure out what your brand is about. Learn as much as you can by listening to digital data, with the help of experts in this field—maybe it’s your digital, social or media agency. Remember, every digital interaction tells you more.
  3. With that knowledge,find opportunities to build rapport and be helpful to consumers: both to those you knew cared about you, and those you didn’t know cared about you. Get to know this audience closely. Follow them.
  4. Create communications and partnerships that speak to those people and intervene when the moment is right.

If need be, hire consultants who can help you develop a story and imagery that will resonate with consumers based on what you’ve learned about who they are and what they really want.

That last group might be people who used to be strong in traditional branding, and honestly, they should be coming into the picture at the very end of this process. First and foremost, start with people who have the ability to read and understand digital and social data: people who can help you listen to your consumers. Those people who really “get” data are the most important in the brand-building process today.                                        

Are You Sitting Down?

I actually have a quick and rather quirky example to share. It’s one of the earliest I can remember of a company doing something in response to repeated requests from consumers: requests that were only tangentially related to its product (and that’s a stretch!).

Remember, brands should be about helping, not saying things.

Procter and Gamble’s Charmin toilet paper brand released an online tool — which is now an app, by the way — called SitOrSquat. Really, you can look this up; it still exists.

It was made for people living in or visiting New York City. What it did was rather genius. It told you where you could find a restroom in New York City whenever nature called.

When I first saw this, I remember thinking, “That is so much better than an advertisement,” because what they created actually helped me as a New Yorker. I lived there for many years, and even I could never find a bathroom in the city. No one could (and it actually hasn’t changed much, since public bathrooms are still few and far between there). Five or ten years ago, if you needed to, um, go in New York City, you went into Starbucks, Crate & Barrel, Barnes & Noble or some department store.

Here was a mundane and rather unsightly product whose company created something extremely useful to people. And it was all because they were paying attention to consumers’ needs. They might not have been listening to data at that time, but imagine the needs you could uncover today by simply paying attention to what your consumers say on social media.

Check out JR''s latest book "Listening Brands: How Data is Rewriting the Rules of Branding

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