Have We Killed Brand Advertising?

It's Hard to Market a Name That's Been Expanded to Oblivion

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Brand advertising seems to be on its way out.

Take Starbucks, which used to advertise its coffee shops. And very effectively, too. Today, the brand is strongly positioned at the top of the coffee-shop market.

What's next for Starbucks? The company's recent decision to drop the words "Starbucks coffee" from its logotype seems to indicate where the company is going. According to media reports, Starbucks is in the midst of a transformation from a coffee company to a food and beverage organization.

Starbucks is following a well-worn path. Build a brand that stands for something and then try to figure out what other products you can hang the brand name on.

Take Crest, a Procter & Gamble brand that used to stand for cavity-prevention toothpaste. Today, Crest is a toothpaste, a toothbrush, a mouthwash, a dental floss and a tooth whitener.

There is no such thing as a Crest advertising program. And if there were, what would the message be? Probably some variation of the slogan used on the Crest website: "Healthy, beautiful smiles for life."

It's not that Procter & Gamble doesn't advertise. In 2009, P&G was the largest advertiser in America, spending $4.2 billion.

They just don't advertise brands. They advertise various products their brand names are attached to.

That's typical of many categories.

The car conundrum
Consider automobiles. When was the last time you saw an automobile brand advertisement? Automobile companies don't advertise brands, they advertise individual models and hope you form a favorable impression of the brand by osmosis.

Take a typical Ford advertisement featuring the "all-new Focus," which is likely to be a big success. But what does it do for the Ford brand? Not much, especially with one of the weakest slogans in the automotive field: "Drive one."

There are 23 automobile brands on the American market that each sold more than 100,000 vehicles last year. It must be extremely difficult for an automobile prospect to differentiate between 23 advertising campaigns for these 23 brands.

But that 's not the real problem. These 23 brands encompass 205 different models and almost all automobile advertising is "model" advertising rather than "brand" advertising. And I suspect most of this advertising is ignored because there is no way for the average consumer to find positions in the mind for so many different models.

Once in a while, an automobile company finds a reason to advertise its brand rather than one of its models. In January 2009, Hyundai launched its Assurance program, offering to take back cars sold to customers who lost their jobs. This idea created enormous awareness for the Hyundai brand. But campaigns like that one are rare.

It's not the fault of the advertising agency. How can you run an advertising campaign for an automobile brand that sells cheap cars and expensive trucks (and everything in between) under the same brand name?

No, the fault lies with the company that expands the line into oblivion, and then expects to run an advertising program to enhance the value of the brand.

New and improved
Years ago, Procter & Gamble pioneered the "new-and-improved" philosophy. Every few years, each brand was updated with one of the latest developments created in P&G laboratories. Not only did these developments keep the brand ahead of the competition, but they also provided ammunition for the brand's advertising.

Today, the philosophy has changed: Introduce the new-and-improved version, but also keep the "old-and-obsolete" version on the shelves. That way, the company gives the consumer more "choice" and, equally important, allows the new-and-improved version to sell for more money. In the process, the strategy also creates more "facings" for the brand on the shelves.

Look at Campbell's tomato soup. With all the negative publicity about sodium, the company wisely introduced versions with "25% less sodium than our regular product." But it also kept the regular product on the shelves. (Now it turns out that the company didn't really mean to compare the low-sodium product with its regular soup, but with the average sodium content of the soup category.)

You pay a penalty when you do this. The consumer assumes the 25%-less-sodium product doesn't taste as good as the regular product and the regular product has too much sodium, otherwise why introduce a 25%-less-sodium product? Now the consumer has no reason for buying either the regular soup or the low-sodium version.

Then there's Campbell's Healthy Request tomato soup with "0g trans fat per serving" advertised on the front of the can. But Campbell's regular tomato soup also has zero grams of trans fat per serving. (At Publix, the Healthy Request version sells for 50% more than the regular tomato soup.)

Instead of playing verbal games with consumers, a better strategy, in my opinion, would be to eliminate trans fat in all Campbell's soups, reduce the sodium content and then run a massive advertising program with the general theme, "All Campbell's soups are now new and improved."

Nothing to advertise

It's strange. With all the innovations that have occurred over the years, very few brands have anything to advertise, except the merits of individual models or products. In today's overcommunicated society, this "model" strategy is wasteful and ineffective.

And so it goes. As a brand expands into different varieties and different categories, the brand itself loses its ability to stand for anything specific. And if a brand cannot stand for something specific, it cannot be advertised in an effective way.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Al Ries is chairman of Ries & Ries, an Atlanta-based marketing strategy firm he runs with his daughter Laura.
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