Hey, Ford, here's a better idea: Dig deeper for brand truth

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How do you build a brand? That basic question apparently isn't as elementary as you'd think. Several advertisers who should know better are trying to remake their brands into something they want them to be-not what they actually are.

Ford Motor Co. is desperately looking for a way to make its venerable car brand stand for something-anything. So it's seized upon scientific innovation as the essence of its brand. And, as Automotive News reports, even though its lineup of hybrid cars isn't due out for five years, Ford is unleashing a major corporate branding campaign in October to tout its new positioning.

"I'm not sure there was an aha moment" said Ford Chairman Bill Ford, "but it became increasingly clear to me, as we were talking to customers and doing our research like we always do, that the Ford brand in particular, but also Lincoln and Mercury, didn't have the kind of clarity in the marketplace that I wanted to see."

What Mr. Ford doesn't want to admit is that Ford has a very clear impression in the marketplace-but one that it doesn't want to acknowledge-of building mediocre cars without style or that sought-after innovation.

That's what Ford stands for in people's minds, and a brand represents what people think it is, not what marketers wish it were.

What's worse, if and when the advertiser finally gets around to fulfilling the promise of its ads, all those years of non-delivery will make people very skeptical. Once consumers develop an impression of a brand or a company, it's hard to change their minds.

That's why Volvo has such a tough job ahead. Not content with having car buyers equate Volvo with safety, it now wants to be known for snazzy cars. So the car maker has pulled away from touting safety alone to trying to have it both ways. But its new slogan, "Safety is a beautiful thing, especially when it's beautiful," is incomprehensible gibberish. Volvo is doing its best to confuse consumers about what kind of car Volvo is. Luckily for the Swedish car company (now owned by Ford) the safety angle is so deeply embedded in people's minds that even lousy advertising can't extract that impression.

The trouble with trying to concoct an image out of whole cloth (as Ford is doing) is that the company could be tempted to change its message in midstream based on its latest take on what consumers want.

One industry analyst suggested, for instance, that scientific innovation and even safety aren't enough to set a car brand apart because all the car companies are rapidly reaching parity in those departments. So will Ford switch to another theme, like cutting-edge styling, to try to catch consumers' latest fancy? Why not? If Volvo thinks its cars are beautiful, why can't the parent company have the same fantasy?

Marketers need to reach down to find the brand truth, as Fran Kelly, president-chief operating officer of Arnold Worldwide, tells prospective clients. Employees are an important constituency of any ad campaign, and they know if their company is representing itself in an accurate and meaningful way. And they'll say, "That's just advertising" if the ads don't capture the essence, the core, of what their company stands for. (If it doesn't stand for anything, they'll know that, too.)

In his new book, "Breakaway Brands," Mr. Kelly emphasizes that "the only way to build a dominant brand is to find a way to make your product unique and somehow better."

But if you have to talk about cars that are years away from the marketplace-and whose scientific innovation might very well be outmoded by the time they get there-Ford's new campaign is destined to come up empty.

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