“Classic marketing” vs. “Classic Branding”

Last year, Google was the #1 brand in America as rated by brand design agency Landor Associates’ annual national Image Power ® Newsmaker Brands survey. What do we learn from the rise of a brand that has no essential identity other than to serve as a platform for consumers to search the Web—the ultimate “blank screen”?

And what further do we learn from the fact that three other “blank screen” brands were in the top 10—YouTube (#4), eBay (#5), and Yahoo! (#6)? For those who are unfamiliar with these brands, YouTube is a platform for consumers to post videos; eBay is a platform for consumers to sell merchandise to other consumers; and Yahoo! is a portal for users to obtain personalized content online, from email messages to news and more.

It is possible that the rise of these brands represents the triumph of the Internet. But there is another way to look at it: all of these brands are “classic marketing” driven brands. That is, they have no intrinsic identity other than the wants of the consumers who use them. This is in opposition to “classic branding” driven brands, which have no intrinsic identity other than the vision of the businesspeople who created them: Oprah (#8), Sony (#9), Target (#7), NFL (#10), iPod (#3), Las Vegas (#2).

I developed the concepts of “classic marketing” vs. “classic branding” based on Jacques Chevron’s argument nearly a decade ago in Brandweek (5/31/99; “Marketing vs. Branding: Separate Pieces”) that marketing and branding are not the same thing but rather represent two different disciplines, in large part because “marketing is extraverted while branding is introverted.” By this he meant that brands can follow either a marketing approach—looking primarily at what customer want and then tailoring the brand to it—or a branding approach—looking inward at what the brand represents and focusing on communicating it outward.

In a way, marketing and branding are more than two opposing disciplines. They are two different visions of the world. The marketing-oriented brand thinks about “consumer wants above all,” while the branding-oriented brand thinks about “what consumers should I channel into my brand?”

There are so many differences between branding and marketing. Branding is about living with consistent values, like swimming your laps; marketing is about taking one good shot at the basketball hoop. Branding happens slowly; marketing is fast. Branding is a multifaceted personality; marketing is one aspect of that personality. Branding is talking; marketing is shouting. Branding is value driven (example: Office Depot has a note on its computer screen for salespeople, reminding them to tell customers when office chairs are vinyl and not leather); marketing is amoral. You brand a name; you market an initiative. And on and on.

The rise of marketing-oriented brands reflects a customer whose wants are always changing and changing fast as the things available to them become more advanced more rapidly. More than that, it reflects a sense of entitlement among customers who expect that brands will ultimately be tailored to them: “an audience of one.” These brands serve the customer who has moved away from mass brands and beyond niche brands to the customer-created brand. It’s impossible to keep up with customers like these because virtually as soon as a new brand framework arises, it is outstripped by the customer’s advancing wants. (Social theorist Georg Simmel called this the eternal conflict in modern culture.) Thus Google, YouTube, eBay and Yahoo!, as well as the top brand Craigslist.com, all decline to offer the customer a brand framework, preferring instead to let the customer define the brand.

At the same time, the strength of Oprah, Sony, Target, NFL, iPod, and Las Vegas reflects the fact that for other consumers, the need for a solid brand remains eternal. Rather than seeking to create brands themselves, these customers seek to connect their wants to the image projected by the brands offered to them. They cry with Oprah, are entertained by Sony, become chic on the cheap at Target, crunch bones through watching the NFL, escape the world with their iPods, and experience “what goes on here, stays here” in Las Vegas.

There is another way of looking at this issue—by the level of customer involvement in the brand.
  • “Classical brands” exist without reference to the customer—they are iconic, like Coca-Cola, Tiffany, Oprah, Disney, Starbucks, “24”. That is, they are so deeply introverted, or rooted in their set of brand beliefs, that they almost don’t require a customer to exist. Even when they depend on the customer to exist, the customer plays a scripted role (as in the crying and clapping on the Oprah show).
  • Integrated brand/marketing brands allow the customer a voice in determining the direction, voice, and values of the brand. Think of Amazon.com and its rating system, or American Idol and the co-creation of brand between judges and contestants.
  • “Classical marketing” brands allow the customer to determine the entire identity of the brand – the “blank screen” brand discussed previously.
What kind of brand has the most earning potential for the future? Are we looking at a future based wholly on the marketing approach, where companies welcome customers “hijacking” their brands and determining their meaning and direction? Or is the success of brands like Google and YouTube just a fluke, and the real value lies in the Oprahs and the Starbucks of the world?

Unfortunately for investors in Google and the like, it is likely that the “classic marketing” approach will not have lasting value. The lack of a strong brand identity for the company—despite the well known personalities of its inventors—means that as soon as another company comes along which is equally functional and reliable, customers will turn to it as eagerly as they embraced Google.

At the same time, brands which are so introverted that they fail to embrace customer evolution will inevitably collapse inward. Look at the Gap, for instance, which once defined classic clothing for those in their late '20s and early '30s, but failed to grow and mature as times changed. And one could argue that the Home Depot brand, similarly, has lost favor precisely because it’s not listening to what customers want in a home improvement store—and that Lowe’s has stepped in to pick up the slack.

Likely, the winning brands will be integrated brand/marketing brands—those who embrace “classic branding” while integrating the lessons of “classic marketing”— defining a strong identity framework for the brand while allowing consumers (or representatives of consumers) to add their own unique stamp to it. An example that quickly comes to mind is the Disney television channel for kids, which stamps the idea of “realizing your dreams” on a widely diverse array of shows aimed at children in the 5-12 age group. Brands like this stay true to a vision, values, personality, and culture that give the brand name its value in the first place. At the same time, they stay current by adapting the brand framework to consumers’ ever-evolving understanding of what the brand means in their lives.

That, forever, is a winning formula.