The changing landscape of branding

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Last weekend, I got a chance to take part in an audio event to discuss ‘The Changing Landscape of branding’. Here are some points which I attempted to elaborate and a few others which struck me as relevant later:

Branding: what is it?

Over the years, I have heard the term branding being used in different contexts. When a client says ‘branding is weak‘ it could mean that they fear that the viewer may not remember the name of the brand advertised or worse still, mis-attribute it to a competition. It could also be a comment to simply increase the size of the logo in a static medium. When someone comments that ‘branding is good‘ they could refer to how well awareness or preference has been created. So there is no one definition of what the term means. It is perhaps a reflection of the advertising & marketing business where unlike other professions, there is hardly an agreed definition or ‘jargon’ across the board. Everyone in the medical or legal profession would know what a particular terminology means – but not so in the business of advertising & marketing.

“Branding is the perpetual process of giving a meaning to specific organization, company, products or services by creating and shaping a brand in consumers’ minds.”

So, it is a sum total of several elements that come together to shape a brand in the minds of consumers.

Then & now: simpler times, less clutter & competition

What’s changed over the years when it comes to branding, is the relative simplicity of the media & marketing environment compared to just a decade or two ago. Television, print, radio and outdoor were the options to advertise and most brands invested a major share in at best two of them. In that context, maybe it was relatively easier (as compared to today) for ads to stand out. A simple jingle with the brand name repeated often set to a nice tune was memorable back then.

Ages ago, ‘Surf washes whitest’ as a headline was good enough. Later ‘Dhaag achche hain’ (or ‘Dirt is good’) was a roundabout way to tell families that they can confidently let kids be kids playing in the outdoors because ‘Surf washes whitest’. The latter approach was mandated by media clutter and time-poor consumer who had to be stopped in the tracks to take notice of an advertisement.

Business competition was obviously around always but not as tough as it today what with increased media clutter. Also, there is hardly any scope for real, meaningful, product or service differentiation which can give a brand a long-term advantage. Every ‘benefit’ can be copied or bettered in no time.

Back in the 90s, the turnaround time expected to create the first cut design of a print ad would have been a week. Today, ad agencies are expected to turnaround with ideas in a day if not in a few hours. It is a reflection of competitive pressures of today when brands have to respond quickly and do not have the luxury of time.

Old is gold? Maybe not always.

Nostalgia is a high. It’s common to have a mindset of ‘those were the good old days when everything was just better’ towards everything – movies, summer holidays, music and so much more. The experiences and memories we have of our younger days have a deep impact and we yearn to have them back. So we tend to see everything about the past from that perspective. In reality a few things were true about the good old days just as they are now: (a) a majority of the ads were forgettable, mediocre and ignored and (b) consumers found a way to block out annoying ads.

Another aspect of Indian advertising was the predominant original thinking in English and a creative community that had strong western sensibilities. Many in advertising had more in common with the West than with Bharat. Anything beyond Bandra was alien to a large section of South Bombay bred advertising professionals. The way language translation, rather transliteration was handled is a testament to that. Freelance ‘vernacular’ writers used to come and pick pages of copy or script written in English and then translate them into regional languages without any brief on the business objective, target audience or the creative strategy.

Bolder clients? Maybe.

In the early 90s and maybe 2000s, the risk taking ability and creating ads which did not insult the intelligence of the consumer was perhaps higher – especially in FMCG advertising. This was true of categories which catered to the English speaking audience through print ads as seen by some clever copywriting and great ideas. Over the years – especially in TV advertising for FMCG brands it’s all become template-driven and dictated by results from research groups. The reliance on intuition was perhaps more back in the days. As media budgets increased (and payouts to celebrities too) marketers tend to play it safe.

Un-bundling of agency services and beginning of retainer fee system

The hiving of media agencies into separate units is by far the most impactful of changes in the industry. This had far reaching effect. Earlier all the services a client needed was under one roof. The un-bundling separated the creative agency in every which way from the media folks when in fact, both need to work together to see how a creative idea can be brought alive best in a platform. This has also led to the retainer fee system (replacing the media commission) which led to under-cutting among agencie and selling their services cheap – a move they have not recovered fully from.

Fundamentals will not change – in a digital or analog world

It’s fashionable to believe that everything has changed in advertising – it’s a total takeover of technologies and data is everything. Far from it. The industry is still about persuading people to feel differently about a brand, a cause or be moved enough to take some action. There is far too much focus on hyper personalisation and use of programmatic relegating the basics of consumer psychology and communication principles to the background. New entrants to the industry are also led to believe that digital is everything. In India, while digital consumption has seen growth, reach and influence of TV is still significant. Some new age brands may have been built recently in the digital world but they do need the power of TV and emotional storytelling.

24×7 visibility: not necessarily desirable

A thematic campaign and a few tactical ads was the norm for most brands earlier. Now there is not only pressure to be present on every platform but also post ‘something’ continuously. In the name of moment marketing and ‘content’ there is pressure to be have a say on every occasion, news of the day and so on. I don’t see it as a healthy trend. Fatigue can also set in with such constant intrusion. I guess brands which cater to millennials primarily think that a cool, funny post is what they expect to see constantly to form a ‘connect’ and be top of mind. With exceptions, most such communication is forced and hardly relevant to the business.

What are your views on the changing landscape of branding? Do comment in.

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1 Comment

  1. Great Post! Took me to a memory lane almost!
    I attended the audio event too, and felt you wrapped it all by saying “Fundamentals would remain the same.

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