Are brands becoming incidental to the brand story?

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As consumers, how often have we experienced a situation where we remember elements of an ad (such as a key visual, a character or the story line) but are unable to recall the brand? Some marketers think the solution lies in placing the brand logo on the screen right from the first frame of a TV commercial, having the brand repeated many times in a radio spot or increasing the size of the logo in a static medium like print. This is not a new phenomenon. The crux of the issue is in the creative idea (or the lack of it) itself – steps like placing the logo for the full duration of an ad only shows the lack of confidence in the idea itself. But the worry of brand misattribution is real.

‘How is this story, proposition or ad true only for my brand?’ is also a question brand owners ask of their ad agencies. In my view, that’s unfair because the differentiation should start from the product itself and not just the ad. Sure, ads can help create distinctiveness and aid memorability through consistent use of ‘owned assets’. For example, a Coke’s wave is so distinctive that it cannot be applicable to or confused with a competing brand. But it is a fact that genuine product differentiator is hard to come by and in such a situation, an endearing story and its execution is what the brand owners can hope for. Remember the famous ‘jalebi’ ad from Dhara years ago? Some might argue that one can replace the advertised brand with a competitor brand and the ad would still work. Yes, it would but the fact that we still recall the ad (with the correct brand) shows how endearing the story was. There are effective stories anchored on the product or service as we saw in the famous ‘Reunion’ ad for Google Search.

The common factor such stories is emotion. But emotion need not necessarily be about making people cry. In the name of story telling attempts are made to tug at the heart strings. As Mark Ritson writes, ‘most marketers, have taken the concept of emotion too literally. Yes, sadness does count. But so does fear. And surprise. And awe. And craving. And joy. And satisfaction. And excitement. And humour.’

In the past, famous marketers used to place artificial restrictions such as ‘brand must appear by the 7th second in a 30-second ad’. It was their way of ensuring that viewers clearly associate the right brand with the ad. Over the last few years, advertising seems to have over compensated – they have taken ‘story telling’ to such an extreme that the role of product runs the risk of being incidental. Another ‘expected’ layer to the creative strategy is an association with a cause or ‘brand purpose’. Sometimes it feels right: as with ‘Share the load’ project of Ariel which called for equal sharing of housework. I remember seeing an ad for Activia, a probiotic yogurt brand. ‘Good for guts’ proposition of the brand is stretched to ‘being gutsy’ and a paying a a tribute to bold or gutsy acts. The association seems logical runs the risk of relegation the brand to the background.

The new Christmas advert for Coke in the US has all the right cues about the festival – people coming together for a ‘good cause’ – in this case, to get a chimney for a boy who has discovered his apartment doesn’t have one.

The brand barely makes an appearance and gets the spotlight when a Coke branded carton is placed to ‘complete’ the chimney. The PR blurb says, ‘our campaign celebrates the real magic of human connections. With a simple and uplifting message of unity, inclusion and positivity at its heart, it aims to remind us that all we need for a magical Christmas is shared moments with community and the ones we love.’ In such a scenario isn’t the lofty objective being advertised and not the brand? The same brand has shown in the past that a feel-good ad can be anchored around brand cues.

There seems to a penchant for a roundabout way of selling the brand. A recent example I can think of is that of Cadbury’s 5-Star in India. The ‘Do Nothing’ campaign seems to cue that the chocolate has to be eaten leisurely, in an unhurried manner. A new campaign promotes ‘NothingCoin’ as a currency that gets mined while you ‘do nothing’, an extension of the brand proposition.

To start mining NothingCoin people buy a Cadbury 5Star, scan the QR code, and log onto the Do Nothing mining website. After following some basic steps, they must do nothing. That means leaving their phone alone to let the website mine NothingCoins for them. Then they can use their NothingCoins in the digital Cadbury 5Star mall, for products from Souled Store, offers from Paytm or JioMart vouchers. 

I get that the millennials are the intended audience and such ideas may not connect with an older target group. I also get that there is a link to the brand but I find activation ideas like an actual bank with a ‘loans counter, an ATM, and investment schemes with quirky messages that ask the consumer to do nothing’. But I can’t help wonder if it’s all a giant stretch and complicating things? All these efforts relegate the product to the background and push the cause or the campaign idea to the forefront.

Buzz creation seem to be a goal which brands are chasing in the hope that it will create affinity for the brand. A recent example is that of Tropicana in the US – where they have launched a toothpaste. It is not for sale but given away via an Instagram sweepstakes. The rationale: mint toothpaste is known to ruin the taste of orange juice.

I am sure I am in the minority in thinking that these are roundabout ways to sell a brand and each additional layer of a story, runs the risk of relegating the brand to the periphery. Do share your views.

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