"The fundamental thing we're all about is building brand leaders," said the chief executive of a giant advertising agency recently. "The way to do that is to have a superior understanding of the consumer, which leads to better, fresher, more powerful creative work that ultimately builds brands."
Building brand leaders with better, fresher creative work? We think not. Many marketers confuse brand building with brand maintenance.
Just because a heavy dose of advertising is associated with most major brands doesn't necessarily mean that advertising built the brands in the first place.
The birth of a brand is usually accomplished with publicity, not advertising. Our general rule is publicity first, advertising second. Publicity is the nail, advertising is the hammer. Publicity creates the credentials that provide the credibility for the advertising.
FROM THE BODY SHOP TO FURBY
A closer look at the history of many major brands shows this to be true. As a matter of fact, an astonishing number of well-known brands have been built with virtually no advertising.
Anita Roddick built the Body Shop into a major brand with no advertising at all. Instead, she traveled the world on a relentless quest for publicity. By pushing her ideas about the environment, she stimulated a torrent of newspaper and magazine articles, plus radio and TV interviews, that literally created the Body Shop brand.
Until recently Starbucks Coffee Co. didn't spend a hill of beans on advertising, either. In 10 years, the company spent less than $10 million on advertising, a trivial amount for a brand that delivers annual sales of $1.3 billion.
Wal-Mart Stores became the world's largest retailer, ringing up sales approaching $100 billion, with very little advertising. A Wal-Mart sibling, Sam's Club, averages $45 million per store with almost no advertising.
In the pharmaceutical field, Viagra, Prozac and Valium became worldwide brands with almost no advertising.
In the toy field, Furby, Beanie Babies and Tickle Me Elmo became highly successful brands with almost no advertising.
In the high-technology field, Oracle, Cisco and SAP became multibillion-dollar companies (and multibillion-dollar brands) with almost no advertising. In the software field, Linux is in the process of becoming a worldwide brand in spite of the fact that it has received zero advertising and is not even owned by any one company.
On the Internet, Yahoo!, Amazon.com and Excite became powerhouse brands with virtually no advertising.
On the other hand, Miller Brewing Co. spent $50 million to launch a brand called Miller Beer. (What you might call "just plain Miller.") The brand generated no publicity, created almost no perceptions in the minds of beer drinkers and rang up very little in sales.
Would better, fresher, more powerful creative work have built a beer called Miller Beer into a brand leader? We think not. There is no publicity potential in a regular beer with a line-extended name like Miller.
GREAT IDEA, NO PUBLICITY
Enamelon is a toothpaste with a breakthrough concept. Its formula repaired 80% of early cavities on rat teeth while standard fluoride toothpaste repaired none. Instead of a massive publicity campaign, Enamelon jumped right into the market with a $25 million advertising and coupon campaign. Results have been dismal. In the first six months, sales were just $7 million resulting in a loss of $24 million.
Enamelon needed publicity first. Only publicity can create the credentials that would give its $25 million advertising campaign its credibility. Otherwise the ads are just a claim.
Timing is the critical element here. No company we know of neglects to use publicity in the launch of a new brand. They usually brag about their "big bang" campaign. "We are using advertising, publicity, direct mail and couponing to launch the biggest marketing program in our company's history."
But when the smoke clears away, when the excitement of the initial launch is over, nothing usually has been changed. The prospect's attitude is the same as it was before the launch started.
IT TAKES TIME
When you want to change minds, you need time to achieve those changes. When you start with a publicity program which unfolds over months or years, you give the prospect time to adjust to the new ideas you are introducing. It's only a slow build-up that can lead to big changes in the prospect's mind.
The trouble with most big bang programs is that they hit the marketplace with a bang and then they are gone. It's the climax with none of the foreplay. There's no drama, no crescendo of excitement, no anticipation.
What works best is starting with your core group and then rolling out the story. An item in a newsletter leads to one in a trade publication, which improves your chances in a general business magazine. Then you can move on to a consumer publication and ultimately to network TV with a few side trips along the way to radio and newspapers.
The best way to start the Enamelon program might have been with the American Journal of Dentistry. But most advertisers are itchy. They can't wait out the long time cycles that many publicity programs require. They're too quick to reach for the hammer.
REACHING JUST A FEW
Unlike advertising, it's not necessary for a publicity program to reach everyone. Forget reach and frequency. Think credentials and credibility. When you can convince a handful of influential people, you can count on word-of-mouth to fill in the cracks and carry your message to the rest of the market.
Perhaps the most famous advertising campaign of all time was the 1960s program for Volkswagen. Legend would have you believe Doyle Dane Bernbach took an unknown car brand and made it into an enormous success. But Volks-wagen was hardly an unknown brand before DDB took the car for the advertising ride of its life.
Volkswagen arrived in the U.S. in 1949, the same year Doyle Dane Bernbach was founded. Over the next decade, Volkswagen generated many favorable stories in the press, including a glowing review in Consumer Reports. By 1959, Volks-wagen was the largest selling imported car in America. That year Volkswagen sold 119,899 cars, which represented 20% of the import car market.
The next year "Think small," DDB's first ad for Volkswagen, ran and the rest is history.
As powerful as the advertising was, Doyle Dane Bernbach didn't actually start from scratch. Nor should they have. Advertising needs the credibility created by publicity. Volkswagen advertising did what advertising does best. Take a fast brand and make it even more successful.
What would have happened if the "Think small" and "Lemon" advertisements ran in the year 1949 instead of the year 1959? Probably nothing. The "small, ugly, reliable" themes were first created by the publicity and then used to establish the credibility of the advertising.
Avis was already No. 2 in rental cars before DDB put "We try harder" on the advertising map. With all of its brilliant advertising, did Avis ever overtake Hertz? Not exactly. Advertising cannot make a No. 2 or No. 3 brand into the market leader in the absence of a strong, publicity-oriented program.
Take the experience at Nissan, the No. 3 brand behind Toyota and Honda. In spite of some of the most universally acclaimed and admired advertising of 1997, including agency of the year honors for TBWA/Chiat/Day, Nissan sales for the year slipped 4% while sales were up 13% at Toyota and up 5% at Honda.
JUMP STARTING A BRAND
If you want to "jump start" a brand buried in third place, you need to focus your energies on the ideas and concepts that will generate favorable mentions for your brand in the media. There is no other way. Advertising can only work when it is based on credentials created by the media.
Take advertising agencies themselves. Do you know of any advertising agency that has become successful by running advertising campaigns about themselves? We don't.
What builds an agency brand? Favorable mentions in Advertising Age, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, etc.
If you're a smaller agency, you won't become successful in the marketplace unless you first become successful in the media. Great advertising for your clients or great advertising for yourself won't do it.
The only advertising agency we know of that tried to create an agency brand by advertising in the media was Calderhead Jackson. And where is Calderhead Jackson today? Right down there with Miller Beer.
Today brands are born with publicity, not advertising. A new brand must be capable of generating favorable publicity in the media or it won't have a chance in the marketplace.
First the nail. Then the hammer.
Mr. Ries is chairman and Ms. Ries, his daughter, is president of Ries & Ries, Roswell, Ga. They are co-authors of "The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding"