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Is it bye-bye time for big branding?

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Consider the venerable industrial brands that were dominant 50 years ago. Now look around.

OK, there are a few giants imaginatively reinventing their brands. Take General Electric Co.'s "Ecomagination" initiative to develop a raft of environmentally conscious technologies, an eco-friendly positioning strategy that other companies-including oil company BP, car maker Honda Motor Co. and chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices-have recently embraced to varying degrees.

But am I the only one who feels-it's a visceral feeling, exactly how "brand" is supposed be experienced-that long-range, multiyear, b-to-b branding efforts have taken a back seat to tactical campaigns around new products? 

 I see three primary reasons for this shift:

  • Speed of business. With ever-compressing business and product cycles, coupled with the current emphasis on entering new markets, some CEOs may not see the point of committing to an umbrella brand long-term.
  • The Internet. Think speed again. Getting all parts of a big organization to synchronize their efforts relative to the brand is challenging enough when it comes to print and broadcast messaging. Getting all these moving parts working together on the Internet is nearly impossible, given the profusion of channels: banners, newsletters, webcasts, podcasts and now blogs. (We'll be celebrating some standout examples in our annual Integrated Marketing Success Stories cover story in the August issue.)
  • Measurement. Frequent readers of this space know I'm an advocate of measurement. But the flipside of this focus is that companies gravitate toward valuing things that can be measured, or measured more easily or quickly (the need for speed again). Inevitably, items such as demand generation, qualified leads, conversations and click-throughs come to be valued over softer assets like reputation and brand preference.

Brand matters, argues Kevin Randall, director of brand strategy and research at Moveo Integrated Branding, a brand consulting and marketing communications firm. "Building [brand] equity with the audience will get you through the bumpy periods more than having fancy products and features that can be easily replicated," he said.

Al Ries, chairman of marketing strategy firm Ries & Ries, says the devaluing of brand reflects a real battle between management and marketing. "[Former GE CEO Jack] Welch didn't say anything about marketing in his latest book," Ries noted.

"Fundamentally, management believes you win with better products. Marketing believes you win with better brands," Ries said. If management holds sway, the company will extend its reach--Microsoft Corp. getting into game consoles, interactive TVs and cell phones-until "these extensions weaken the brand," Ries said.

Randall also blames the dot-com flameout for some remaining bad feelings about branding. He recalls the conventional wisdom during the dot-com heyday: "Build awareness and they will come." "After the crash, the emphasis was the business model, return on investment," he said.

But Randall tells me not to worry: "I think everything is cyclical, to be honest."

I'm not so sure.


In this issue you'll find a new section, "Events" (page 15). Actually, this is an old department for BtoB, which we retired during the last recession when travel budgets across the board were slashed and humongous trade shows, in particular, fell on hard times.

 

But face-to-face meetings-trade shows and single-sponsor corporate events-never really disappeared, and they have come back strong, underscoring their unique advantages and appeal. What's more, event marketers have become much more sophisticated about maximizing the return on their event efforts through more tightly focused preshow planning and postshow follow-up. The Internet is playing a big role here, as are CRM tools and analytics.

We want our new event marketing section to address all these items with a mixture of trend stories, case studies and expert Q&As (rotating each month between event producers and event marketers). Your suggestions and stories are, as always, welcome.

Ellis Booker is editor of BtoB and BtoB's Media Business, and can be reached at ebooker@crain.com.

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