The "B" Word

It may surprise many people under 40 that the term "liberal" was once a viable term within our national political structure. Not that everyone ascribed to that particular ideology - a third of the country loathed FDR - but it was accepted as a legitimate descriptor of those on one side of the political divide. But in the 70s and 80s, the word was demonized; negatively defined by the conservative movement to the point where - today - it's downright radioactive. Even if you agree with many of the social, economic and foreign policy positions that traditionally stand under the liberal banner, you'd absolutely recoil if someone called you a "liberal!" The term has become the political equivalent of an ethnic slur in today's world.

"Liberal" has taken a beating. Much as "branding" has in the world of marketing.

Over the past decade, "branding" has been negatively defined by those playing the direct response/direct action card. "Branding" was once the tallest tent pole within the marketing big top. But it's gone through years of erosion and withering attack. Those who traffic in cost-per-action pricing, couponing, trade discounts, promotions and other "accountable" marketing practices have tarred branding with the brush of wastefulness, caprice and lack of accountability. Branding has become the reckless, aimless, spoiled heir of the marketing past: the Paris Hilton of advertising. Direct marketing, on the other hand, is the dutiful, hardworking nebbish that's always working, always committed, always right there with the spreadsheet.

A fair characterization? Of course not. But who said life was fair? And as long as we let the term "branding" hang out there in the breeze with no real definition, it's going to continue to take a pounding. And far too many media sales people continue to feed the stereotype by casually tossing out the "B Word" to marketers and agencies that either aren't really sure what it means anymore, or who don't really care.

It's time for some new language. Walk away from "branding" as a descriptor of marketing value. Instead, speak to marketers in very concrete terms about the qualities that are inherent in branding. The conversation might go something like this:

"Do you feel that customers need to remember the name of your product?"

"Well... of course!" (Raw awareness)

"Would it be a good idea to connect the brand to positive qualities in the mind of the consumer?"

"Yeah... sure..." (Brand Association)

"Could it be helpful to explain the product to the consumer? I mean, if they understand what it does aren't they more likely to buy it?"

"Uh... well... yes, I think so..." (Knowledge of product attributes and benefits.)

"And if we can move them along and make them more likely to buy... would that be helpful?"

"Oh, yeah... absolutely!" (Purchase Intent)

"Oh, one final question: Can I interest you in some branding today?"

"God no! Are you kidding? We're accountable marketers here, and don't you forget it!"

It's not right or fair that the term branding has been damaged beyond repair. But that's the reality of the situation. And we can ball up our fists or cry or have lengthy philosophical arguments about it... or we can adjust.

Those of us in the interactive space are particularly vulnerable. The dutiful, hardworking nebbishes of pay-per-click and cost-per-action are omnipresent in our world. But if we continue to cling to the "B Word," we have no one but ourselves to blame. Instead, let's get serious and specific about the elements of branding, even as we consign the term to the ideological scrap heap. Every aspect of what we used to call branding can be measured... and they can be measured thoroughly, quickly and inexpensively online. If each of us is willing to really understand the process and speak about it in specific terms, we might just help today's marketers come to terms with their dormant inner brand builders.

Send your comments and questions directly to Doug Weaver