The Brand Inside- you are what you sell… and vice versa.
By Jerry Lewis, Creative Director, Brown Bag Marketing
If you’ve been in the brand-creation business for more than a week, you’ve probably heard that Marlboro used to be a women’s cigarette. Their ads targeted women, and the product even came with a red filter tip, to mask those unsightly lipstick marks. When sales were on the decline in the 1950s, executives at Philip Morris began to scratch their heads.
Enter Leo Burnett, an up-and-coming ad man, who suggested that a little re-branding might be the solution. Actually, what he had in mind was a total sex change. And with nothing to lose, the tobacco company agreed. So the brand was completely re-themed with rugged-looking cowboys who rode the range in an imaginary place called Marlboro Country.
In the postwar 50s, men weren’t jumping out of airplanes to fight Germans any more. So they were hungry for ways to show their manhood. The macho image of striking a pose with a man’s cigarette seemed appealing. And male smokers took up the new brand in droves. You could say they literally inhaled it.
The brand makeover not only made it cool to light up, it lit up sales, too. Marlboro is still the top-selling cigarette to this day. And for marketing men ever since, Leo Burnett is the cowboy riding off into the sunset – rounding up stray products and burning them with unforgettable brands.
Marlboro is just the tip of the iceberg of famous product reinventions. Maybe you have your own favorite re-branding story. The point is, case studies like Marlboro light up the careers of marketing people to this day. We read them like bedtime stories. We dream subconscious dreams of introducing a new tagline or launching a new ad campaign, and suddenly generating mega-profits.
For naïve marketing types, Marlboro Country represents an imaginary place where you can change the packaging and instantly transform the company. In essence, it suggests that brand is what you are on the outside. And changing it is as simple as a fresh print run with different ink.
But in the real world, it doesn’t always work like that. In many ways, cigarettes are like widgets – an oversimplified metaphor for a business model. After all, tobacco is an inanimate commodity. It won’t cuss out a customer when you’re not looking, or leave someone on hold for thirty minutes. It won’t whisper rumors about office politics or declining employee morale.
In the real world, those everyday messages are the subtle information flows that determine brand perception. And they’re more influential with your customers than a million-dollar ad campaign.
For most of us, brand runs much deeper than packaging. Brand happens each time a customer interacts with a sales rep, or calls customer service for support, or walks into the lobby. In the real world, brand is a complex network of interactions. And effective re-branding involves masterful orchestration of all these factors.
These days, a more realistic example from the branding Hall of Fame is Avis. Their audacious celebration of their inferior market share (We Try Harder) is familiar enough. But the process that led to it can’t be overemphasized. It’s a road map for anyone looking to take their brand to greener pastures.
It began like most assignments. Avis asked DDB for a new ad campaign. In 1962, with a paltry 11 percent market share, they were operating in the red. Surely, increased awareness would improve the situation, right?
Perhaps. But Bill Bernbach had more in mind. Somehow, in those initial conversations about catchy headlines and media buys, he managed to turn the subject to things like customer service and corporate culture. Before putting on his ad guy hat, he played business consultant. After all, he knew consumers weren’t stupid. In his words, “It’s always a mistake to make good advertising for a bad product.”
At Bernbach’s urging, Avis began to rethink things from the ground up. And DDB stayed involved in the process. The agency spent three months learning the company inside out. Through exhaustive meetings, they arrived at honest questions like, “Why would anyone rent a car from you when they could rent from Big #1?” And their honest answer became the rally cry for the entire company: “We try harder, because we have to.”
The company embraced the confession, and turned it into a promise to their customers. Ads were developed. And just to make sure everybody was on the same page, copies of the ads were inserted into company payroll envelopes before they were launched publicly.
Through this landmark process of honest introspection, Avis emerged with an external brand rivaled only by its own internal brand. In just four years, their market share tripled.
If I had a nickel for every client that’s asked for a cool logo over the years, I’d be richer than Leo Burnett himself. And yet, somewhere along the way, I began to see firsthand the inadequacy of that mindset. Logos and ad campaigns can be like fingers in dikes. And even though it’s easier to patch up a brand from the outside, there’s no substitute for probing the roots of corporate philosophy from which brand emanates in the first place.
When the internal brand is right, the external brand flows naturally from it. And if we’re honest, attempting anything less is a disservice to client and agency alike. It sets us both
up for failure. At best, it’s like designing light bulbs to burn out in six months – it guarantees repeat business.
In the future, true branding success will be dependent on the ability to recognize how the internal brand drives the external brand – and the willingness to shape both. And those who rise to the task will ride off into the sunset every time.
Jerry Lewis is the Creative Director at Brown Bag Marketing, a full-service agency in Atlanta recognized as a leader of the inside-out branding movement. He can be reached at email@example.com.