Keeping up with the Jonesness

The corporate mania for "brand essence" is getting just a little out of control.

Published June 24, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In my native England there exists a cookie called a Hob-Nob. And for reasons perhaps peculiar to the idiosyncratic British palate, an extremely popular one at that. This chocolate-meet-oats concoction arrived in the mid-'80s to a rapturous public reception, and hasn't looked back since.

Anyway, back in 1988, just weeks after I started as an advertising account planner, my agency was awarded the prestigious Hob-Nob account. This was, as I remember, a controversial move at the time, as the previous agency had just launched the brand, to both critical and commercial acclaim, using the landmark slogan "One nibble and you're nobbled." (Don't ask.)

My first internal meeting of any significance was about Hob-Nobs. I was invited to sit in and observe as senior members of my department set out their strategic vision for the brand's future. But it seemed to me that the former agency had figured it out pretty well. What would our guys be able to add?

The title of the planners' presentation set the tone. On the front page, in weighty, Germanic typeface to denote earnestness, appeared the somber title "Hob-Nobs -- A Case History Problem." Inside, the lead planner had formally laid out his judgment on the launch campaign. Yes, he acknowledged, consumers may have loved it. And yes, OK, it did sell boatloads of Hob-Nobs. But in truth, he opined to the hushed and horrified crowd, it had been a failure -- for it had neglected to define the essence of the brand.

I looked around the room to get a sense of the gravity of this oversight. Judging by the number of disapproving faces, this was a high crime indeed. And as the presenter warmed to his theme the tut-tutting and head-shaking increased, until his withering summing-up settled the jury's verdict. "The previous advertising," he solemnly declared, "though successfully launching the brand, has failed to determine what Hob-Nobness is."

This was the first time I'd heard the term "brand essence," or seen "-ness" suffixed onto places where it had no honest business belonging. But I doubt if in the 10 years or so since then I've gone a single working day without hearing one term or the other. Over that time, the power of a company's brand image has come to be seen as the critical determinant of its success, and "essence" its holy grail -- hard to track down, but once discovered and harnessed a powerful property indeed.

The quest for brand essence has become big business. Pots of money are spent on brand essence research studies. Numerous brand consultancies have opened their doors, tempting in clients with promises of infallible (and of course proprietary) techniques for sniffing out this elusive quarry. And nailing a brand's essence is now often the deciding factor in major advertising pitches. Just last month we read that Toys 'R' Us had awarded its account to Chicago's Leo Burnett because Burnett showed "a clear understanding of the essence of our brand," and CNN went with Hill Holliday because it "captured our brand essence in the review process."

In short, brand essence has become essential. Robert Posten of the research and consulting company Icon & Landis summed up the prevailing view of the critical role of essence in his 1997 Advertising Age article when he wrote, "The essence of the brand must be strategically defined ... the very survival of the brand is at stake." Dramatic stuff.

My problem is that I still have the same nagging concern as the day when I heard the term "Hob-Nobness" to describe the essence of a common cookie. Is this brand essence thing going too far? Are we strategists in danger of taking ourselves a little bit too seriously here?

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not for a minute saying that the development of a memorable and meaningful brand identity isn't the heart of good marketing. Nor that the discovery and subsequent communication of brand essence can't be effective; on the contrary, countless brands, such as Nike, have mined their essences with extraordinary results.

But I do believe that in the stampede to keep up with the Jonesness, too many companies are accepting brand essence definition recommendations that are mostly just pretentious twaddle. And that more importantly, too many are automatically assuming that the role of advertising is to explore the essence of their brand, when a simpler and more informational message might on that occasion, and for that client, be more effective instead.

Why? Because the fact that all brands by definition have an essence does not mean that all are equally fascinating to the consumer. Most would agree that Rolls Royce oozes essence, and that they'd like to hear more about it. But most would probably also agree that they don't want to hear more about the essence of a kitchen towel brand. Basic rule of thumb -- if you have to conduct tons of research to discover what your brand essence is, it's probably neither interesting nor real enough to justify talking about in public.

A lot of the time this public exploration of brand essence just feels like a bad case of Hamletesque self-absorption. We're all time crunched these days, and more often than not as a consumer you'd rather just cut to the chase. Hey brand, I'm busy. And you're not as interesting as you think. Quit gazing at your navel. Just show me what you've got.

A good example of a brand currently misspending its resources on essence marketing is Al Gore. Al's been with us as vice president for six years now, and has shown precious few signs of possessing any essence that we'd like to know more about. However, he has held major office in an administration that's presided over an unprecedented economic boom. Why don't his people tell us more about his personal contribution to that? Why don't they just focus on Al's proven functional benefits? Instead they try to dredge up some "Goreness," with predictably off-putting results.

One of the campaigns I admired most last year was Lucent Technologies' TV effort. Being newcomers to the screen, and a hugely admired and capitalized company, Lucent must have been very tempted to spend 30 seconds waxing lyrical about "Lucentness" and leaving us with one of those fatuous tech essence end lines, like "empowering the future." But instead it wisely just told the stock-buying public what they needed to know: who Lucent is, and what it does. The end line -- "We make the things that make telecommunications work" -- was old-fashionedly, delightfully informational.

So why do so few other advertisers follow Lucent's lead? Part of the reason, of course, is pure faddishness. Brand essence studies, with their catchy jargon and sub-Freudian psychology, seem very sophisticated, and no one wants to appear simplistic. And these essences make for great presentation material: I'm sure Leo Burnett's pitch team wowed the folks in Pittsburgh when they reported, as revealed in a recent Newsweek article, that kids told them that if ketchup were a TV character, then Heinz would be the Fonz.
But did it really help them make the creative work better?

However, I believe the real reason for this love of complex essence is marketing and ad folks' natural human yearning for meaning. It's tough having to accept that you're devoting the majority of your waking hours to peddling some ephemeral and mundane consumer good that the world could easily live without. So when some nice consultant comes along and tells you, Hell, no, you're not pushing common detergent, you're creating an inspiring symbol of humanity's longing for inner purity, who could ever resist? Who wants to be a mere product when they could be a symbol?

It was probably this yearning to mean something that caused another former agency of mine in the U.K. to recommend we communicate the following brand essence to the public:

"In an era of superficiality, where style triumphs regularly over substance, the potato stands apart. It doesn't dress itself up, or worry what people think about it; rather it has confidence in its true quality, and allows that to do the talking for it. It only seems humble to those beguiled by appearances; those discerning few who can look beyond the veneer appreciate that the potato is a vegetable of true worth."

Fortunately, we decided to test it in research first. The respondents told us that we must be joking, and "potatoness" never saw the light of day. We did a simple (albeit elegant) campaign instead that showed the public some interesting new potato-based recipes. Potato consumption rose.

And I suppose that's my point. Sometimes essence is essential. But when it takes us to potatoness, it's starting to border on madness.

By Justin Holloway

Justin Holloway is senior vice president, director of account planning at Publicis & Hal Riney, San Francisco. Sadly, Justinness has yet to be firmly defined.

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