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On the Campaign couch

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In a recent response to a reader, you said: ‘First a tip. Stop talking about "my brands". They’re not your brands. They belong to the company your irksome CEO is paid to run.’ Sorry to be irksome, but I seem to recall that in your ‘Posh Spice & Persil’ speech, you asserted convincingly that brands belong to people. Which of you do I believe?

Please believe both of me. Your confusion is understandable and the fault is mine. Irksome you’re not.

Let me return to my "Posh Spice & Persil" lecture, which, even after 12 years, you accurately remember.

I started by saying: "Products are made and owned by companies. Brands, on the other hand, are made and owned by people… by the public… by consumers." And went on to say: "Brands are fiendishly complicated, elusive, slippery, half-real/half-virtual things." And so they are.

When I wrote the response you quote above, I remember feeling a slight tinge of guilt that I’d failed to make my own distinction between a product and a brand; and then thinking: what the hell, no-one will notice. Well, you did.

In truth, we’re going to have to live with the fact that the word brand will forever be used to mean slightly different things. A company will quite properly refer to its brand portfolio; and brand portfolios will contain products with brand names. Marmite, Apple, Domestos, Mr Kipling, BMW – along with several million others – are all branded products; and they’re made and owned by their companies. For chief marketing officers to believe that a company’s brands are the exclusive property of their marketing departments is to be as misguided as the chief executives who agree with them. That was what I meant when I warned the CMO not to get possessive.

But in order to understand the real nature of each of those brands, of course, you need to burrow into the innermost recesses of the minds of humans. Like people, brands have reputations; and a brand’s reputation is totally different from its product formulation. The product formulation, precise to the last fraction, checked and certified, sits carefully guarded at company headquarters. The brand’s reputation does not. The brand’s reputation – prompted by an infinite number of brand experiences, brand myths, brand messages – is first created and then resides inside an infinite number of different human heads. Like human faces, no two versions of this reputation will be identical.

And that’s what I meant when I say that brands – as opposed to branded products – are made and owned by people. The art of great brand management, of course, is to mastermind the exposure of hints, clues, cues and other stimuli that an infinite number of people spontaneously and individually arrive at what has been called a consensus of subjectivity. (Preferably a favourable one, of course.)

Hope that has helped.

Recently, someone bought Reader’s Digest for £1. Would you have paid that for it?

No, because I wouldn’t know what to do with it. But I have a strong and totally unsubstantiated belief that the demise of Reader’s Digest, at least in part, was the result of its long-term addiction to over-efficient marketing.

It was once one of Britain’s most-read magazines, disliked by advertisers only because of the ungenerous size of its pages.

But, for years and years, I think I’m right in saying, Reader’s Digest spent virtually no money on public media; by which I mean media that, by definition, are technically extremely wasteful. Reader’s Digest restricted its promotions to direct mail – so, if you weren’t on its mailing list, you could quite easily believe it was dead. (It was never dominant on the newsstands.)

You never saw Reader’s Digest sprawling across a 48-sheet poster or making its presence felt in a primetime break. When I spotted an occasional copy in a dentist’s waiting room, I’d check to see that it was postwar.

Big brands need to be expansive. They need to be familiar to those who never buy them. They need open air because, without it, they suffocate. I think Reader’s Digest did.

What is the Socratic method and does it have any relevance to marketing?

Pass.

‘Ask Jeremy’, a collection of Jeremy Bullmore’s Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10.Telephone (020) 8267 4919
Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, Teddington Studios, Broom Road, Teddington, TW11 9BE

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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