Though an act of pure fiction, there were three magical minutes of television that reminded many of us who make our careers in the world of branding why we do what we do. Don Draper, the dashing but often mysterious protagonist of Mad Men, an American drama series about advertising in the 1960s, pitched Eastman Kodak to become a new client of his agency, Sterling Cooper. Kodak had given him a challenge: tell us how we should sell a wheel-based slide projector. After a few pleasantries, Draper demonstrates to his future client that it isn’t the technology that will sell the product. It’s the emotional connection people will have with what that technology does. As he proceeds to show slides of his own family, he asserts that our love for nostalgia will make us view Kodak’s product as a kind of time machine—a device that allows us to reconnect with our most cherished memories. It is not a wheel, Draper says, it is a carousel.
A half-century after this fictitious moment of profound insight, the branding trade is bigger than ever. There are far more brands competing for our attention today than there has ever been before in human history. Added to this leap in scale and market activity is a seismic change in the technologies that enable brands. A layman without any design training or particular talent can easily create a logo on a computer, affix it digitally to a product, service or company, and claim to have a brand. In fact, the concept of branding is so pervasive that it has extended to the idea of personal branding. Hundreds of books and thousands of consultants are working very hard to convince each and every one of us that we must develop our own personal brand in order to find the success we seek in life. Should it surprise anyone that the concept of brand is becoming meaningless? It’s the kind of jargon that makes most senior executives roll their eyes.
Just as Don Draper delivered a compelling truth to Kodak by advising that what matters was not the technology, but what the technology enables, today’s business managers need a reality check. Brands only accrue value through the delivery of exceptional experiences, not through the execution of exceptional marketing or clever promotional buzz. When I say this to many of my colleagues, they consider it blasphemy. I don’t mean to discredit the value of smart marketing, but to emphasize the point that brands are not the exclusive product of marketing. Any business that hopes to build a valuable brand by focusing all of their efforts on the flawless design of advertising and promotion is taking a great risk. While that flawless marketing power may generate awareness, interest and affection, it will not bring the customer back if the product or service fails to deliver on its promise. While brilliant marketing might very well make employees proud to have the company on their resume, it won’t keep them in their jobs for very long if they don’t believe in what they’re doing day in and day out; if they don’t believe that the company’s products and services actually deliver against the promise of the marketing hype.