Why the "Power of Branding" Is a Myth
Brand is important. No question of that. A strong brand can make it enormously easier to sell. However, the notion that "branding" can create a great brand is a myth. Worse, it's a myth that can cost you a lot of money, without getting much in return.
By "branding", I mean the panoply of marketing activities like brand-focused advertising, packaging, marketing materials, logos, taglines, and so forth. In almost every case, money spent on these activities is money wasted.
I fully realize that this viewpoint flies in the face of what you heard in business school. Nevertheless, it's the truth and to understand why, you need to understand what "brand" really is.
Bottomline: Your brand is the emotion that a customer feels when thinking about your product.
That’s it. Neither more nor less. And that’s why "branding" is so impotent.
While it is true that branding can associate an emotion with a product, especially when pointed at highly impressionable buyers (e.g. young men who watch beer ads), in the vast realm of B2B sales and even in most consumer markets, there is one, and only one, thing that creates customer emotion: the customer’s experience with your product.
Once customers start thinking your product is garbage, there's no amount of "branding" that can change the perception. In fact, attempting to use "branding" to fix a product problem always backfires. All it does is call attention to the difference between the brand message and what the customer knows is true.
By contrast, if customers love your product, then the brand will reflect that love. Of course, you can use the some of the tools of "branding" to help spread the word, but the keystone is always the customer's experience.
I know what you're thinking. What about Coke? What about Sony? They spend money on branding, so branding must be worth it, right? Well, not necessarily. In every case where there's an instantly-recognizable brand, there's a history (in Coke's case more than a hundred years of history) of the company providing a consistently excellent product.
In any case, it's a very weird notion that your company should be imitating the market spend habits of a company like Coke... unless, of course, your company also has an instantly-recognizable brand built up over decades.
The average SMB has almost nothing in common with Coke, or with Sony or Apple for that matter. Most SMBs sell B2B, which means appealing to a sophisticated buyer, who is very aware of the consequences of each purchase. That a B2B buyer might be swayed by a glossy brochure or a Coke-like logo, is frankly absurd. None of that fancy branding junk has any influence on a B2B buyer.
Same thing is true in many consumer markets. Apple, for instance, is a great brand not because or their logo or their commercials but because people feel good when they use Apple products. So good, in fact, that the Apple faithful are willing to overlook the occasional stinker.
Now, just in case you’re thinking that I’m just a sales guy who’s ragging on marketing, let be it known that I spent 6 years in a marketing group for a multi-billion dollar corporation where I was responsible for branding an entire line of software products. In fact, I won two awards. I still have the plaques.
It wasn’t until I got out of that job that I realized that our marketing group had wasted, over that six year period, well over $100 million on various kind of branding. This included (although I was not personally involved in this particular debacle) a multi-million dollar re-branding campaign that (wait for it...) changed the logo from blue to purple.
Don’t get me wrong. Marketing is important, essential in fact, but only as long as it is focused on 1) generating leads and 2) making it easier to sell.
And brand is important. Unbelievably important. But the "power of branding" to create that brand? Sorry, folks, 'tis but a myth.
READERS: Feel free to argue with me on this one, if you’re so inclined.
GEOFFREY JAMES | Columnist
Geoffrey James was recently named a "Top 40 Social Selling Marketing Master" by Forbes, and his blog has won awards from the Society of American Business Editors and the American Society of Business Publication Editors. His writing has appeared in publications as diverse as Wired, Brandweek, and Men's Health, and he is the author of numerous books, including The Tao of Programming, Business Wisdom of the Electronic Elite, and, most recently, Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know.