Are Brands Too Bland?

Sometimes you have to date an article precisely. This one is being written after the Manchester derby (unfortunate result, but who cares – we’ve won the League anyway). I’m writing it after some pulsating Heineken Cup clashes, and after my golf partner and I were devastated to lose a foursomes final on Sunday, and before we became embroiled in the Masters.

I’m writing about brands, so why start by talking about sport? It’s because many of us always start by talking about sport. It’s exciting, it’s involving, it matters. In particular, it matters whether you win or lose. It is also overwhelmingly absorbing – in detail and across the board. That’s why so much broadcasting time is dedicated to showing wall-to-wall sport. That’s why it sells newspapers, which we tend to read from back to front.

I wasn’t so immersed in events at Old Trafford last week that I couldn’t dwell on the contrast between the frightening intensity of the battle on the field, and the ‘contest’ between rival shirt sponsors AON and Etihad. Even when Chevrolet take over the United shirts next season, it will be the clubs, not the brands, that fight it out.

Everywhere we read that the consumer is in charge. The era of command and control is over. Instead of consumers being pattern- bombed by advertisers trying to spread awareness and influence purchasing behaviour, the internet and social media sites in particular are inundated by consumers talking up brands – and sometimes slagging them off.

But last week, as bone crunching tackles rained in and the yellow card was repeatedly flashed, it occurred to me that none of this consumer involvement with brands is confrontational, or adversarial, or competitive. It is military parades, not an engagement. It is manifestos, not the hustings. It is on the training grounds, not at the stadium.

It is instructive to look at the language. The experts at brand management in social media use phrases like:

  • Social networks can breathe new life into brands by building collaborative relationships with consumers
  • Let go – allow consumers to lead the conversation
  • Anchor your brand to your core values
  • Connect to causes that truly resonate with your organization and its culture
  • Don’t just celebrate success. Embrace failures and resolve them in public

Social media marketing has followed conventional marketing in preparing brands for battle. Not leading them into it. Marketing (like R&D) is essentially a headquarters activity, unlike sales, which has traditionally been on the front line.

Maybe this is why marketers have developed such a love for competitive pitches. If you can’t actually watch your brand trading blows with its rivals, at least you can enjoy agencies killing each other for the right to advertise it!

I feel that digital marketing is missing a trick. It would not be hard to devise formats in which brands could slug it out in the ether, with rival supporters baying for blood, and judges championing the contestants as if they were on The Voice or Britain’s Got Talent. It could even work on TV too, which would be even more exciting.

Am I being unfair in suggesting that even on the internet, brand battles are tame compared to sport and other contests? Is it wrong to suggest that today’s brands are too bland for such a gladiatorial age? I am not sure. But it would be well worth looking at something more combative.

And what a brilliant challenge that would be for agencies, who feel that micro-management and over-reliance on pre-testing has blunted their creative claws. For pioneer companies who decide to take the gloves off, and dare to fight toe-to-toe with competitors, the rewards might be mouth-watering.