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Do brands matter? How meaning and marketing are shifting definitions


Do brands matter? How meaning and marketing are shifting definitions


Gavin MacMillan ponders the role of brands in 2017, and introduces us to the idea of ‘Action Brands.’

You might think the title a strange question for an advertising bloke. Aren’t I meant to be a defender of the brand faith? An evangelist of brand value?

The scary thing for brand warriors is the increasing number of great brands that haven’t engaged in much or any brand building – at least not any of the conventional stuff like advertising. Anyone seen a proper ad for AirBnB, Uber, CostCo or Zara? And I’m not the only one who’s noticed this phenomenon.

In fact, James Surewicki famously posed the question that maybe the era of the brands is over in his ‘Twilight of the Brands’ article in the New Yorker back in 2014.

In this era of internet-assisted decision making, who needs a brand? That’s the question Simonson and Rosen asked in ‘Absolute Value’. Anyone charged with building a brand may now be thinking, ‘if brands don’t matter, what am I doing with my life!?’

So rather than roll over and yield to this existential effrontery we here at Ogilvy decided to get under the skin of things with a little research. We spoke to 10,000 in five countries around the world to try to understand a bit better what was going on. Here’s what we found:


Brands matter, but only just

Phew! The good news is that brands do still matter to people. In Australia, 47% of people agree that brands matter in this world. This compares with similar results in the US and the UK. We can infer these numbers have been on the decline though, if we turn to the developing markets of China and Mexico where over 80% believe in brands.


Brands matter in different ways

We asked people to score 25 ways in which a brand could possibly matter. The answers gave us what we call the drivers of mattering and they cluster into four groups:

  1. The Fundamentals: the basic dimensions of trust in a brand. This is about doing what you say you’ll do and standing behind your products. The fundamental function of a brand. No surprises there.
  2. Service attributes: this is the new bit. Today, people want brands to help them, not just sell to them or even entertain them. The top two statements people rated here were: ‘provides me useful info’ and ‘helps me to do things’. Remember, this wasn’t just a survey for service brands. It was for all brands.
  3. Purpose attributes: we think that these have been displaced by some of the more modern service values mentioned above.  In other words, people seem to be telling us that purpose needs more purpose. It seems no longer enough to simply state an ideal.  Today, brands are expected to help people achieve their own ideals.
  4. Image attributes: These are the attributes that most senior marketers grew up worrying about – brand personality or image dimensions. Our theory is that these have been displaced twice – first by the purpose attributes and, more recently, by the service attributes.


People want marketing that helps

We found that people value marketing and communications that helps them do things. So, instead of marketing that tries to do things to them, people want marketing that they can do things with.

The types of marketing that rate highest are ‘service’ marketing. ‘Informative and helps me understand’ scored highest, followed by ‘provides information which helps me with decisions’ and ‘provides instruction’. (We live in a time of instructional videos and practical advice at the touch of a button and clearly want this sort of help from brands.)


So, what do we do?

Well we believe we’re now in a new era of branding, one we’ve called the era of ‘Action Branding’. We’ve moved beyond the eras of image and cultural branding to a world where only the useful brands count. Guidance and help are the catch cries of the action brands. To be helpful, you’ve got to think beyond brand ideas to content and utility that reflect passion or resolve tension.

To do that you need to think differently about how you plan and build communications and the digital infrastructure that supports it. You’ve got to apply different people, process and planning tools. Not an easy thing to do. Don’t worry though, we’ve made a lot of mistakes working out how so if you need a hand, let me stop talking and show you some action.



Gavin MacMillan is managing partner at Ogilvy Melbourne.



Image copyright: jgroup / 123RF Stock Photo


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