As someone who has a scientific temperament and is a rationalist, I tend to always approach a problem in a rational, scientific way. Or at least, I always prefer to, circumstances permitting. And it’s one of the many reasons I think strategically on advertising and brand communication matters, even though I have spent my entire long career in advertising in the creative department as a writer.
It helped that I studied economics, so my grounding in economic fundamentals and understanding of business is solid and sound. That comes in handy when dealing with account management types who don’t do their thinking and ferreting of information from their clients well before pestering creative teams to think of ideas with shoddy advertising strategies and briefs.
On the other hand, because I grew up in a home full of books, reading and music, my sensibilities very much belong to the world of imagination and creativity. Ideas and their expression have always fascinated me and it is to pursue a career in writing that I decided to join the advertising industry 36 years ago. Thankfully, I have to say that it is an industry that has allowed both my rational, strategic faculties as well as my imaginative and creative skills to flourish and grow. One agency, Ogilvy, in particular is where my thinking capabilities were honed, even as a writer and it is also where I had the opportunity to explore and understand all the other communication disciplines, such as direct marketing and public relations.
When I approach an advertising or brand communications issue, my work always begins with an understanding of the product and the industry, and based on marketing facts, I try and arrive at what the positioning for the brand should be, before then embarking on the creative idea journey. In fact, the journey begins right at the strategy stage, which is essentially a route map to where you want the brand to be. It is an attempt to travel from what “the product is” to what “the brand can be” and the journey is filled with possibilities of a brand’s potential. These are usually alternate strategies that can be explored and tested in the market before finalizing any one direction.
Imagining what the brand “can be” therefore is already a creative process and even if it is only in consumers’ hearts and minds that brands exist, it is we who put them there in the first place. Through the kind of strategy, message and ideas we communicate, consumers form a mental picture and an opinion about the brand. Thinking about a brand, therefore, is a whole new way of looking at business. It is not confined to marketing and sales of a company’s products and services, but about making people think of your business in a certain way.
Essaying the life of a brand
If I were to draw an analogy, I would say that thinking about a brand’s strategy is akin to writing an essay on the brand.
One begins with facts about the company and its market environment, followed by an understanding of its product or service, and who it competes with. Then we try and describe the typical consumer or customer for the brand, depending on consumer research if available and embellishing it with our own knowledge of the consumer segment and its attitude towards that particular product category, including how consumers make their brand purchase decisions.
We try and articulate where the brand is today, let’s call it point A. And then imagine where we would like the brand to be tomorrow (within a certain time period), which we call point B. The real kernel of our essay is the journey the brand has to take from point A to reach point B, which is, of course, the nub of the strategy.
In order to make the journey, the brand in question must have a clear and consistent message to deliver. Let’s call it the brand promise. What must a brand promise a customer, in order for the customer to think about the brand in a certain way, as defined by point B?
Usually, by the time one starts thinking about point B – the end destination – one has a fairly good idea of the strategy or route that will take us there. There is, of course, a method to all this and different advertising agencies have their own versions of it, but what I have described here is, in essence, what they all are.
The brand strategy document is very much like an essay, filled with facts, observations, and understanding, but at the same time making an argument or case for a particular direction that the brand must take in order to reach its destination. And that does call for an inspired view, imagination and flair in communication, besides clarity of thought and purpose which are, of course, necessary.
A brand strategy also ought to articulate the brand’s core values, which is distinct from strategy. Here, we try and arrive at what the core values that define the brand and its character are. If the brand strategy is a route map to a destination for a brand, the core values define who or what the brand is. Like the strategy, it is a critical element that goes into the creative process, helping define for the creative team, what values they must communicate in the ideas they explore and what kind of tone and manner to adopt.
Creative storytelling in brand-building
Now that we know who the brand is and where it needs to go, the brand promise that will help consumers think of the brand in a certain way needs to be communicated in engaging and relevant ways.
Here, more than ever, the process requires imagination and flair and this too is akin to aspects of creative writing. We go from essay writing to other creative forms: adverts that are like short stories or – if a series of them – like a novella with each stage of the story unfolding over many months. Depending upon the product category and the brand, we decide on the best creative route to adopt.
Creative platforms or routes can range from “slice of life” stories to analogies, product demos, problem-solution, testimonials, hyperbole, fantasy, and more. Certain creative routes are more commonly used in some categories, such as hyperbole and fantasy in wines and spirits as well as in perfumes. I think it has something to do with the fact that these products are strongly associated with the imagination and the sensory experience, so consumers are willing to suspend disbelief and go along. However, even if certain creative routes are better suited to certain product categories, brands still have to tell their story in a unique way in order to differentiate themselves in the consumer’s mind.
For example, Chivas Regal depicting a snowy winter scene inside a Chivas Regal bottle is quite different from Smirnoff Vodka showing you life through the Smirnoff bottle. In fact, they are communicating opposite meanings which you realise when you see the communication in its entirety. In the Chivas Regal advert, the message is one of returning home to the warmth of Chivas, family and friends which is communicated in the headline: “I’ll be home for Chivas”. In the Smirnoff advert, the message is an invitation to leave the ordinary and explore the wicked and humorous side of life, through the Smirnoff bottle, i.e., ornaments on a lady’s dress at a party turning into beetles, statues of angels on a building roof leading to one devil, etc. I give this as an example, because it tells you about brand differentiation, though one is a Scotch whisky and the other, a vodka. But here, the product differences alone are not important; what is important is that Chivas Regal is about the warmth of home and treasured moments with close friends, and Smirnoff is about exploring the out-of-the-ordinary.
When the medium becomes the message
The medium of communication too is important. Depending upon the brand and the target consumer, we choose the best media channels to reach him or her. But this has implications on the creative expression as well. For example, I might choose to communicate the travel experience of a car differently in print from film. A television commercial allows for great possibilities in storytelling through imagery, moods, characterization, dramatization, etc. with music playing a great role in enhancing the story appeal. But it doesn’t allow one to say very much about the brand and product. And cars are a category about which people like to know more, read and research more, etc. These days, one does see videos of 2-3 minute duration on YouTube and elsewhere on digital media, but the power of a concentrated 3-5 minute read in print cannot be replicated in video. Print also has a longer shelf life than TV and digital, which might be important in certain categories, such as cars. Therefore, even when both media are important for a brand, the idea and the way we choose to communicate the same message might be quite different.
On digital and social media, it is possible to create display adverts that have an idea which generates interest in knowing more, leading readers to the company/brand website, where the full story is revealed. However, it is still a two-stage process, whereas the print medium which is news-based is where a brand creates news especially for new launches.
There is a lot of hype and expectation from the digital media but if you ask me, I think it has a long way to go before it evolves and grows into a full-fledged medium in its own right, as I have written before. The news value that one generates through print and television are still hard to match in the digital and social media space. Print and television are unmatched even in terms of being able to build an image and create an aura around a brand.
But, as I have also written before, the digital medium has scope to grow into a great direct response medium, which is ideal for building consumer relationships. Besides the sales promotion funnel which is all that it sadly is, right now.
Some reason, some emotion and the rest, imagination
Brands are relationships that consumers develop with products, services and companies over a period of time. Therefore, they also need sustained investment in communication over a period of time, in order to become brands and grow. And they require consistency, in strategy, message, ideas and tone and manner.
Brands are the difference between products, services and companies that are similar. And that difference comes from the rational and emotional benefits we imbue them with.
From A to Z then, brandthink belongs to the world of human imagination.