Brand trumps product

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ITT Industries Inc.'s new ad campaign, launched in October, eschews traditional b-to-b product orientation, opting instead for images of cute kids and attractive women. An old-line manufacturer, ITT makes valves, switches and other products aimed at a range of vertical markets. The case can be made that if any company should be concentrating on feature-and-benefit product ads, it's ITT.

So if ITT is running a multimillion-dollar branding campaign, it prompts the question: Is the product ad dead?

Many marketing industry executives agree the importance of print product advertising has declined markedly in recent years.

"It's absolutely the trend I'm seeing," said John Keck, senior VP-interactive media director, FCB Worldwide. "Companies are moving to branding and solutions advertising, moving the money out of product advertising and moving that to the Web."

For some b-to-b marketers, who believe the pendulum has swung too far in branding's direction, the shift is not a good thing. "I am personally a brand bandit," said Mark Jarvis, senior VP-marketing at Oracle Corp. "I hate the term brand, and I have banned it at Oracle. Brand is banned," Jarvis said.

Taking it to the Street

For its branding campaign, ITT has created five print and three TV ads, which are appearing in general business books and on TV shows with a high concentration of business viewers, such as the Sunday morning news programs. Doremus Advertising created the ads.

The goal is to reach Wall Street and upper management. ITT needed to reach these audiences because confusion exists about the company, which is essentially the industrial third of the original ITT, which was broken up in 1996. The two other pieces are The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. and Sheraton Hotels & Resorts, which was acquired by Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. Thus, ITT, the only segment retaining the ITT name, saw a need to re-establish its identity, particularly on Wall Street.

"Nobody knew what they did," said Danny Gregory, Doremus exec VP-chief creative officer, of ITT. "The strategy has been: Let's tell people what they do and why you should care."

Tom Martin, ITT's senior VP-corporate relations, likens the ticker symbols of the stock exchanges to generic labeling. To stand out among this alphabet soup of symbols, it helps if a company can differentiate itself. "It gives people a clearer sense of what we are as an organization, of what we do and what our point of view is," Martin said of ITT's branding ads, which focus on what the company's products do-such as help in providing cleaner water-rather than the features of the products themselves.

Since Oct. 18, the day the campaign launched, ITT's share price has increased 11% from $30.49 to $33.31 at the close of trading on Nov. 30.

A more important reason that companies such as Comdisco Inc. and SAS Institute Inc. launched branding campaigns this year is a shift in the way customers make buying decisions. Like so many other elements of business, those decisions are migrating to the Internet. The days of product specifiers maintaining tearsheet folders of print product ads are fading away. The Web simply is a better medium for compiling the data specifiers needed to make product comparisons.

"Remember we used to circle the damn bingo card?" Keck said. "You'd collect information in a file, but now in an hour you can line up the products on the Web and figure out who's got the better deal."

"There's probably a justified migration driving more specific product information to the Web site, because it can be customized by market segment," said Doug Baillie, Lithonia Lighting's director of marketing communications. "Most companies deal with a wide range of customer sophistication levels and customer needs. Businesses adjust to these different needs by doing a good job on the Web site."

Tom Stein, CEO of Stein Rogan & Partners, said: "I think there actually may be less of a need to use print advertising, but not less of a need to market products. But there are so many ways to target more precisely" on the Web.

Even product tabloids, such as Penton Media Inc.'s NED, have seen a boost in image advertising in their pages. "It's less important to feature product on the page," said Mike Brenner, NED's Midwest regional manager. "It's more important to send a brand message out there. They still need the printed page, but they're pushing or directing people to the Web."

Creative liberation

Creative departments enjoy the shift to b-to-b branding. Tom Rentschler, president-executive creative director of HSR Business-to-Business Inc., an Internet professional services firm, credited the medium with altering the sales cycle. "One of the things the Internet has done is it has liberated print advertising," he said. "Product advertising no longer has to make the sale, not that it ever could, but it is no longer incumbent on it to tell the whole story. … The Internet has had a positive effect on advertising creative, liberating it from the task of selling so darn hard."

The rise of the Internet has also allowed creatives to focus on emotion. "Advertising is able to do one thing well which the Web is not able to do, which is convey the emotion and the spirit and the soul of a company in a sort of almost nonverbal way," Doremus' Gregory said.

The way Oracle's Jarvis sees it, however, the emotional bent of some b-to-b advertising is exactly what's wrong with it: too much fluff and not enough facts.

Jarvis cited Genuity Inc.'s ads for Black Rocket, an integrated network platform companies can use to quickly build e-commerce Web sites. "The Black Rocket ads-what the heck is all that about?" he said. "I forget the company's name, and I have no idea what a Black Rocket is. They are clearly trying to create a brand, but they are confusing people totally as the name of the company and the name of their brand are different, and neither of them stand for anything in the mind of the reader. I challenge anyone to meaningfully explain what a Black Rocket is in less than 30 seconds."

Jarvis predicted the pendulum will swing away from branding ads and back toward product-focused ads-or at least fact-based executions. "Product ads that feature cuteness will be ignored as the customer with little time for research searches ads for facts that allow them to draw rapid conclusions," he said. "Companies that rely on cute non-fact-based ads will not be able to get themselves over the noise level of advertising."

Despite Jarvis' fulminating, Oracle is currently running what could be defined as a branding campaign built around the tagline, "Oracle software powers the Internet." Jarvis, however, argued that the ads, which generally present a simple assertion such as stating what percentage of the Fortune 500 rely on Oracle, is based on facts, not emotion.

Despite enjoying the newfound freedom in b-to-b advertising creative, HSR B2B's Rentschler acknowledged that the branding trend may have gone too far. "I actually think this branding image stuff is falling out of favor," he said. "It's been fairly heavily discredited, particularly as we've seen the shakeout of the dot-coms."

Rentschler sees ads that combine product-focused elements with branding messages as the best solution for b-to-b advertisers. He mentioned HSR B2B's current campaign for GE Plastics, which emphasizes the General Electric Co.'s service capabilities as well as its products. The ads, of course, also direct customers and prospects to the Web.

"Aren't the best product ads branding ads, too?" Rentschler asked.

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