Want a Better Relationship With Consumers? First, Know Your Brand

Why Most Companies Have Fallen Asleep at the Wheel

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Over the holidays I got an email from a radio-marketing executive in India about one of my columns, headlined "Advertising is business, not a holy war."

Rishikar Krishna, group manager-marketing at Radio Mirchi in Mumbai, agreed with my premise that advertisers seem to be going out of their way to avoid the grubby job of selling.

"Just look at the way awards are being given out at the various advertising festivals," Mr. Krishna wrote. "Ogilvy's concept of an advertisement that sells has been devoured by the so-called need of recognizing 'creativity' and originality of an idea."

Mr. Krishna sent me a photo of a banner on a liquor store reading: "On account of New Year free liquor will be served between 8-9 p.m." Such an ad, he said, "is bound to draw footfalls and in turn increase sales, but it will never be [honored] at any award forum. And hence the pursuit of a higher calling continues."

The aesthetics of the banner ad Mr. Krishna sent me might not be out of the ordinary, but you must admit the proprietor has taken firm control of his brand.

Truth in marketing? Capital One's past business practices speak louder than ads.
Truth in marketing? Capital One's past business practices speak louder than ads.
I agree with the premise of Bob Garfield's Jan. 2 piece for Ad Age : The core value of a brand must be real and sustainable, and everyone in the company must believe it. The trouble with advertising philosophies like those of Lovemarks and Humankind is that they let consumers decide what a brand stands for. Bob's thesis is that its stewards throughout the company must take control.

There's nothing new about any of this: It's believing in what you sell, and selling with conviction.

It all goes awry when the company doesn't understand its brands' core values. When Johnson & Johnson pulled all those bottles of Tylenol from shelves some 30 years ago, it did so because it had an abiding pact with its customers. J&J has taken a lot of wrong turns since then, and I'd venture to say that it would have a hard time regaining the trust earned in that gigantic recall.

As Bob says, "Trust is an asset, not a commodity. It cannot be purchased. It must be earned. And it can dissolve before your eyes" -- much as it has with J&J. "But brands keep trying to purchase respect points by , for instance, linking themselves to unassailable causes, such as treating sick kids, in association with a finite promotion or as part of a long-term 'cause-marketing strategy'" -- as PepsiCo did with Pepsi Refresh, letting Diet Coke pass it in sales. "This behavior is cynical and often sordid, exploiting other people's tragedy to buy borrowed interest.

"What companies have available to them at all times, without having to come up with faux philanthropies, is corporate purpose. If you can identify why your company exists and what values it embraces, and if you live by those values across all aspects of your enterprise -- from hiring to choosing suppliers to acting on civic responsibility -- then you have the foundation for values -- based on relationships that command loyalty and trust."

The big problem, of course, is that most companies don't have a deep, all-encompassing understanding of their essence and values. They might have fancy mission statements, as Bob suggests, but those pronouncements are mostly sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Recent Capital One ads, for example, show Alec Baldwin and Jimmy Fallon promising "50% more cash" if you sign up for its credit card, while behind the scenes the company is tightening the screws. Capital One is notorious for finding almost any excuse to increase interest rates on its credit cardholders and for aggressively trying to collect debts from people in bankruptcy. What's in your wallet? Nothing much, after Capital One gets through with you.

But what consumers want most is transparency. What you say on the outside has to match up with what you do on the inside. No more small-print shenanigans, no more persuading customers to bite off more than they can chew.

Stephen Quinn, Walmart Stores's chief marketing officer, told Fortune magazine he sees his role this way: "From an advertising and communications standpoint, my job is to make sure that , first and foremost, people have trust and confidence that we have the lowest prices and that we have the assortments they're looking for.

"Fundamentally, this is a brand that has a purpose, and our associates are very committed to making sure we can save people money so they can live better, and that 's the main vector of marketing communications we have. More important, it's become everyone's job to own that ."

What you say on the outside has got to match up with what you do on the inside.

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