What came first, the product or the brand?

Kelvin Bathe

Faculty: Lord Ashcroft International Business School
Department: Marketing
Course: MSc Marketing
Category: Business

4 March 2015

We have gone all philosophical on the MSc Marketing course. I told you marketing was much more than ads and BOGOFS, it’s deep man. That can sometimes be its weakness though. It is a fact of marketing life that the profession often struggles to be taken seriously. It might have chartered status like accountancy and have high-ranking practitioners like the legal sector but that’s where the similarity ends. Those professions don’t have to put up with every other Tom, Dick or Harriet questioning the recommendations of the marketing expert. When it comes to marketing decisions opinions are like backsides, everyone has one.

There are many reasons for this state of affairs. For me one of the most obvious is our (I am placing myself firmly in the marketing community here) use of language. To paraphrase the brilliantly eloquent Rory Sutherland (look him up, watch his presentations on YouTube, especially you marketing students) to those outside of the marketing sect we are often seen as talking in tongues, like your everyday charlatan astrologer.

So when marketers talk brand conversations, the total brand sensory experience and brand pay back, the chief financial officer hears ‘when Jupiter aligns with Mars and Uranus passes through Pisces, you will meet a cute Capricorn’. Which is closely followed by ‘Get this idiot out of my office and take away their budget’.

Some people in marketing are using language, especially when it comes to brands, like the snake oil salesmen of the old West. They seek to bamboozle, to imply greater knowledge and to mask their own lack of qualification or experience. It is no wonder that other parts of the business get frustrated with marketing, we don’t help ourselves.

There is a solution though. To help me explain, watch this video. It is six minutes long so get a cup of tea and a biscuit…

Oh, and a bit of advertising folklore to add to your viewing enjoyment. Apparently Robert Carlyle did this in one take which is pretty impressive when you look at the timing involved in the piece. But then he is a pretty impressive actor. Proving again that when creating advertising always pay for the best talent you can afford.

All done? Right back to the plot. Think about what happened to Johnnie Walker – the product was improved to give consistent quality and taste so that customers could buy it with confidence. Then effective distribution was tackled. Only after that did the visual bits come – the label, the bottle shape and the iconic logo. The branding elements if you like. Then the additional products, the international sales and the place in popular culture. And finally the Johnnie Walker slogan plays a role in democracy movements across the world. Like the man says, not bad for a Victorian grocer from Scotland.

To improve its status in boardrooms across the business world, marketing should take a few lessons from this story. It has to go back to simple. The more you immerse yourself in the marketing topic the more you learn how complicated it has become. Ah, I hear you say, but the world is complicated, we have globalisation, rapid technology change, increasing wealth, instant communication and channel transformation. Surely marketing has to reflect and adapt to that complexity? The counter to that is Johnnie Walker was born at a time of equal turmoil. The Industrial Revolution was arguably every bit as transforming as today’s information technology age. The Walker family were able to maximise the opportunities of their time by keeping a focus on the product. A simple, committed approach. The brand followed on from that. To quote the insightful Bob Hoffman: ‘We don’t get them to try our product by convincing them to love our brand. We get them to love our brand by convincing them to try our product.’

One of the most important skills that you learn on the postgraduate course is the ability to critically evaluate. To read conflicting thoughts, look at case studies, understand what is happening in the real world and to understand how to sift the brand babble from the meaningful. Being able to argue for simple as you go through your career will be difficult. Simple often means being exposed with no buzzwords to hide behind. It takes courage. You will need the intellectual cojones to be able to stand your ground.

So the answer to my question is most definitely that the product came first. It will always come first. And anyone who tells you different either has a rubbish product or they work in PR.

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