A Conversation on Branding and the Ever-Present Power of Creative

An In-Depth Discussion on the Current Agency Climate and How Branding Is the Cornerstone of Success

When Britton Marketing & Design Group marked its 10th anniversary in March, it seemed like the perfect time to take a close look at the changing landscape of marketing. Who better to discuss the subject with than BMDG president and co-owner Jeff Britton?

Q: Talk a little bit about branding and your concept of it.

Jeff: First of all, we’re really talking about how our brand—the Britton brand—plays out. The basic definition of a brand is a set of differentiators between you and your competition. Brand can be defined a lot of different ways. We joke that branding has a branding problem. Nobody can agree on what it is.

“You’ve got to have the technical side, and you’ve got to have the creative, intuitive thing working.” 

When we were working on the Wagyu cattle book—America’s Wagyu Trail—it occurred to me that the word brand really comes from the marks or the trademarks that are burned into a cow. A lot of times, if you ask people what a brand is, it comes down to a mark or a logo. That’s what it’s been historically. But that has certainly changed. Branding is now a much bigger word. There are probably about 12 different tracks that lead you to defining a brand.

American Wagyu

We have brand value and brand voice, which I’m starting to call brand behavior.

Let’s say I get to know someone well, and I go with them on a vacation or to a business dinner, or we’re just hanging out by a pool drinking beer. If I know them well, I can anticipate how they’re going to act in those scenarios. But people aren’t always predictable. Brands—authentic brands—also are not quite predictable, but you can anticipate how they would act if they were on Pinterest or Facebook, or how they would come across in a corporate presentation deck. So branding to me is as close to defining a living thing as you can get. It’s complicated and therefore it has its own branding problems because you can’t quite put your finger on it.

Q: What else makes branding so complex?

Jeff: I’m an amateur all-sorts-of-things, and one of them is an amateur geologist. If you pick up a rock out of the yard, a geologist will describe it in maybe 50 ways: the size of the thing, the surface, the mineral content, the mineral composition, the size of the minerals. It can go on and on. So just describing a simple rock can be complicated. In describing an authentic brand, you’re never really quite done, because if it’s authentic, it grows and changes. Frequently when we start working on branding projects around here, everyone has read a book, and they come at it from different angles based on what they have just read.

“We joke that branding has a branding problem. Nobody can agree on what it is.”

So even though our brand is a set of differentiators between us and our competition, we don’t usually think of the competition. I’d rather run as fast as we can and not look over our shoulders—I guess I’m assuming we’re leading—than think about competition. At the very least, it’s an exercise about who we are rather than who we compete with. And so with those thoughts, that’s how I started to consider who we are in the current environment and with the current technology. We’re 10 years old this month, and in those 10 years we’ve had enormous societal, technological, and economic changes.

Q: With all this change, what’s the status of advertising?

Jeff: Oh, there will always be advertising, but like most things faith-based these days, we are all asking hard questions about what we have always held sacred. I say this because advertising has always been basically founded on belief. Anything that costs that much must be amazing or fabulous or magical—maybe even creative! But without true ROI or other dependable metrics, I think of advertising as a faith-based activity.

Path with arrows - branding

People call us an advertising agency, and I usually correct them—we’re a marketing agency—because we’ve never been concerned with advertising. Most of our original agency team came from the client side. We were not agency people. We didn’t set out to sell anything; we set out to solve something. And so we’ve been engaged in the care and feeding of brands from the beginning. Advertising was almost the furthest thing from our minds.

“The machine of technology can create traffic and can get the right thing to the right people, and people will click on it, but the second part of the formula is engagement.”

Advertising was the endpoint of the branding effort, not something that sprang from the belief that a brand is defined by clever headlines or a main creative idea. So we’re really not an ad agency, which is good, because in the last 10 years, ad agencies have taken it on the nose. Sure, advertising was part of what we did, but it was only part of the tool basket of communications. Recently, Advertising Agethe advertising publication in the world—has been talking about what ad agencies are going to do in this post-advertising age. It’s a thing. And the reason it’s a thing is because you never quite knew what you were getting with an ad. You had to spend all the money and hope that it worked.

There’s an old adage that states, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” Some folks attribute it to Philadelphia retailer John Wanamaker; others credit it to automaker Henry Ford. Or maybe it was me or you or anyone who has ever paid for advertising media and had no way to measure its returns. Except that we all know that whatever was working is not working so well these days. The game is changing.

Q: What has BMDG’s approach been?

Jeff: We try to understand the brand and push out to the corners of all media and mediums what the brand needed. Most of our clients needed print, so we did a lot of print. But everything we do is content creation. And whether it’s in print or it’s online, we still need compelling images. The machine of technology can create traffic and can get the right thing to the right people, and people will click on it, but the second part of the formula is engagement. Traffic doesn’t matter if visitors just bounce right back off. Really good content will keep people on the site, and there will be engagement. Traffic plus engagement equals success.

Rocks

You’ve got to have the technical side, and you’ve got to have the creative, intuitive thing working. Most of the companies I see do one or the other well. It’s like the two halves of your brain. One half at a time is dominant, and the other half is still running in the background. You have a tendency to be right-brained or left-brained. There’ve been cases where neurosurgeons separated the two parts of a person’s brain to stop seizures or things like that. And what happened was the person would be doing one thing and not know it, and do a second thing and not know it. The two halves of the brain didn’t talk. That kind of schism is what I see with a lot of agencies. They’re either digital or they’re advertising or they’re creative. And we just refuse to let that happen.

“But without true ROI or other dependable metrics, I think of advertising as a faith-based activity.”

It’s like cats and dogs, the feelies and the brainiacs, in some ways. They talk differently, and they have different ways of communicating, listening, hearing, working. Our job, since we’re at the thin edge of this wedge, is to keep them together instead of letting the two groups take off in two different directions. I think we’ll all do way better that way. It’s a little bit like Yogi Berra said, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” That’s our goal: Just to take it.

Q: What can we expect in this post-advertising age?

Jeff: The kind of data that is now available shifts the balance of power away from advertising and places that information in the hands of marketers. Instead of targeting a few static demographic clusters, we can find individuals who want something now. That is not advertising—it’s technological, scientific. And that is marketing.

“Big data gives us the ability to bring lots of little offers—variable offers—not just one creative idea.”

Bigger data has allowed smaller things to happen, ironically. Because of big data, more than ever before we can identify smaller and smaller groups of people. It has little to do with keywords. We look for behavioral groups, even as consumer behavior changes over the course of a day or week. It’s not done using cookies, but is based on real-time interests and activities. That way we don’t have to convince them of anything. We just need to identify what it is they already want and offer it to them in a way they’re most likely to find it—in real time. That is the noble art. That is something we can believe in.

Q: Can you elaborate on what these changes will mean?

Jeff: We used to advertise things specifically to women or men or people of a certain age, or we depended on HHI [the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index, a market-share calculation measure]but that is the top-down approach. Many brands now have the ability to grow from the grass roots up. When someone—anyone—searches online for pizza, even gigantically huge Google knows that person wants to eat a pizza, and not order one from Amazon or research the concept of pizza. All the big data gives us a small one-to-one relationship. Marketers who are willing to work with the data and work hard—not advertisers, the big agencies that want one big media button to push—will make these things happen.

Q: Where does creative fit into this new landscape?

Jeff: Creative is essential, of course. But what passes for advertising creative usually only leads to the big payoff: the media buy. Creative has to eventually do more work than that. It needs to be versioned in a wider way, especially with the current fragmented paths to purchase. Even one big creative idea is not enough. We need whole swarms of ideas.

Organization - branding

Marketing understands the brand attributes and how to find smaller and smaller consumer groups, while creative brings an appropriate brand message to those smaller and smaller groups using various social platforms, including whatever platform the consumer is on at that moment. Variable-data offers are waiting for the right match. Someone inquires online about pizza [going back to the example above], and bingo! they get a map to the closest restaurant, reviews, a coupon, a means to order right now, a way to tell everyone where they are, and a prompt to show off the best slice in town.

Big data means local-specific mobile relevancy: hyperspecialization. Big data gives us the ability to bring lots of little offers—variable offers—not just one creative idea. And it requires understanding the brand well enough to know how to translate the brand voice to all the social media platforms in less than a second.

Q: What gives BMDG an edge?

Jeff: I think we’re going to be really successful in the coming years because we’re small and agile, we’re pretty nimble, and we like working from the grass roots up. While we work with big national brands, we’re working to make them relevant on a local level, and that’s the big shift in digital.

Q: In this changing marketing environment, what are marketers looking for?

Jeff: Some big advertising agencies are catching on, and some aren’t. Smart marketers are catching on. In a recent Advertising Age survey, marketers indicated that they want big agencies to work on a fair and honest compensation model. They want to see a shift toward content and away from the traditional advertising model. The survey revealed that marketers want to know just what they’re buying, and they want to make sure their ads are visible and don’t get buried. They voiced concerns about ad blocking, as well as fraud, and repeatedly mentioned not trusting everything agencies have to say.

Q: What else did the survey show?

Jeff: The top concerns of agencies? Growing revenue and margins, and more efficiencies in everything. Content development, and of course, creative—but with more excellence and a lot of magic. In essence, marketers want to get more money for doing less work and to do so in a way that builds trust. That really would be magic!

Photos: BMDG, Shutterstock

Chip Compton

Chip Compton

Chip Compton has written on a variety of marketing and design topics and personalities, including Stefan Sagmeister, female creative directors, and luxury brands. His work has appeared on “Get with the Confusion,” Medium, and Pop Matters.

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