Advertising DOES NOT build brands

Here’s a very well written and very passionate article about the Devaluation of creativity. It’s written by Bob Hoffman best-selling author and one of the most sought-after international speakers on advertising and marketing.

His profile on Linkedin has some impressive testimonials.

The article is particularly relevant here in South East Asia where creativity is increasingly seen by CEOs and business owners as nothing more than a commodity. Something that can be bought at the cheapest price, or quite often in the case of successful ideas – and I’ve thought hard about this – stolen.

But I don’t want to talk about creativity, I want to talk about advertising and in particular, what it does. Because I stopped reading the article when I reached this part “We need to convince marketers once again that the most effective way to build brands is through the unique and unmatched power of great advertising ideas.”

Sorry, but first it’s wrong to make such sweeping generalisations about branding and secondly, it’s no longer 1979. Advertising doesn’t build brands. Sure it might draw attention to brands and it might influence opinions. It might even help sales of brands. Advertising might, on occassion encourage repeat purchases but it it isn’t enough to build brands.

According to Ernst & Young approximately 25,000 new products are launched every year and most of them by companies such as Unilever who spend around US$10 billion a year on advertising yet 22,000 of those products fail to make it to the second year. Despite all those billions spent on advertising.

The very reason so many brands fail is because they are convinced that the unique and unmatched power of great advertising ideas builds brands. The ability to deliver value – economic, experiential and emotional value (and increasingly, social value) – is what builds brands.

Your organisation needs to be in a position to deliver that value at every touch point and every time, before it even thinks about advertising. And actually if you manage to reach such a pinnacle, you probably won’t need to spend money on advertising.


A kick in the teeth for Malaysia’s advertising industry

The Lions are awards given out at the Cannes festival, an eight day celebration of creativity. Tens of thousands of awards are submitted and every man and his dog in the advertising industry wants to win a Lion. An agency can bring in business for years if it’s won a Lion. Even if the creative genius who won it has long gone from the agency.

This year, despite submitting 325 entries, Malaysia’s advertising industry failed to win one single Lion, despite the number of Lions awarded to firms in Asia increasing from 209 last year to 263 this year.

The awards went to agencies from the following countries with last year’s awards in brackets:

1. Australia – 71 Lions from 1782 entries (51)
2. New Zealand – 57 Lions from 526 entries (20)
3. Japan – 46 Lions from 1736 entries (35)
4. India – 27 Lions from 1315 entries (15)
5. Thailand – 23 Lions from 558 entries (9)
6. Singapore – 14 Lions from 688 entries (18)
7. China – 9 Lions from 1022 entries (17)
8. Hong Kong – 5 Lions from 386 entries (2)
9. South Korea – 3 Lions from 309 entries ( 11)
10. Taiwan – 2 Lions from 144 entries (0)
10. The Philippines – 2 Lions from 253 entries (1)
10. Vietnam – 2 Lions from 89 entries (0)
13. Indonesia – 1 Lion from 119 entries (4)
13. Bangladesh – 1 Lion from 25 entries (0)

Other countries that didn’t win any awards were:
Malaysia – 0 Lions from 325 entries (6)
Sri Lanka – 0 Lions from 31 entries (0)
Pakistan – 0 Lions from 3 entries (3)

On the face of it this is a major kick in the teeth of the industry in Malaysia. Despite the fact that some advertising agencies have been known to create fake ads simply to try and win a Lion or two the Lions are still the holy grail of the industry. By the way, I’m not saying of course that that happens in Malaysia…

Personally, I think the empty and pointless measurement of the number of awards an agency has won in the past has nothing to do with the ability of the agency to deliver creative genius in the future. But sadly it’s enough to convince a CMO or CEO that the agency must be good. Of course we all know that the metric by which they should be judged is how many units of a product are sold.

But I think a lot of the blame lies at the feet of CMOs, CEOs and other business leaders in the country. To survive an agency can only really give a client what he wants and if he wants the same as the other guy then what can the agency do about it?

The Future of Branding is Debranding. Well maybe, but first you need to know what is branding

Here’s a link to an interesting article in the fast company owned site magazine, an online design driven website that is “inspiring stories about innovation and business, seen through the lens of design.” They recently ran a story cleverly titled The Future of Branding is Debranding.

I’m an occassional visitor to the site and particularly like their infographic of the day. Have a look at this one that depicts climate change as a haunting death spiral.

The article starts well enough with the fact that digital media is blunting the effects of advertising but then goes on to say that native advertising or branded content is a sham and nothing more than an attempt to trick customers into spending money. While getting customers to spend money is the aim of most advertising (as is quality design) it misses the point of what is branding.

The future of branding is debranding? Well maybe, but not if we're starting from the wrong place
The future of branding is debranding? Well maybe, but not if we’re starting from the wrong place

The article does make some valid points about branded content and how it is not a strategic exercise or a long game. And this is true, it’s simply a tactic employed by brands. But it loses it’s way as it confuses tactics with strategy. Branding is a strategic exercise, most branded content is a tactic although some firms such as Coca Cola do it properly (see video below) and integrate it across channels and make it strategic.

The post then goes on to make the bold but ultimately wrong statement that, “Branding is, fundamentally, just a form of communication.” This is simply not true and I’m surprised such an auspicious publication allows such a claim to be made.

Indeed, it’s claims like this, from prestigious sources that are muddying the branding waters. How can CEOs make the investments required in branding if they are confused by what constitutes branding in the first place?

To make matters worse, it then goes on to say that debranding shouldn’t be confused with visual branding! Using a couple of niche brands as examples it says, “Such visual identities could be the result of debranding, but they are not the end goal. The real goal is a well-made product.”

I don’t understand the visual bit, but a well a well made product is definately a goal and any brand should start with something that is fit for purpose because no amount of communications will make a crap product good and certainly won’t build a brand.

But what’s really important is that the brand delivers economic, experiential and emotional value every time, and at every touchpoint and with everyone.

The mistake too many brands make when they start branding (or the advice they are given is wrong) is that they think branding is based on acquisition – it isn’t and they think that stringing together a series of tactical campaigns will build a brand – it won’t.

Products or services need to be sold. Companies need to make those sales but the ability to start delivering value at the first and subsequent touch points is going to lay the foundations for the success, or not of that brand’s relationship with the prospect/customer. And that relationship is what builds the brand.

Advertising, branded content, design etc may be required at some point (although increasingly consumers are not influenced by such superficialities and look for more personalisation and relevance) but critical is the ability of the brand to deliver the value I keep mentioning.

The article finishes with the statement, “Don’t throw a new product on the market if it’s not intrinsically better and more durable than what already exists. We don’t need more branding; we need fewer, better-quality products. Fine-tune your product’s quality, design, and its durability. Become a producer of shoes again instead of surrogate spirituality”

Whilst Chinese products may have had short term success because they were cheap, most consumers are moving back to quality products from more established manufacturers who have invested in tools to improve their efficiencies, making consumers the winners as products are better.

So we’re definately moving away from ‘cheap as chips’ junk. But at the same time, with a growing global population with more disposable income, there will always be demand for commodities but again they shouldn’t be confused with brands.

And besides, despite the advertising, the branded content and all the other tactics used to try and entice you, you don’t need to change what you are already happy with.

And bearing in mind that 80% of what most of us buy are the same things, one could argue that a lot of brands are already doing the right thing.

Are you wasting good money on bad advertising?

I wrote a blog post recently about print ads and how I was convinced that print advertising was in decline. You can read the post here. I also shared the post on the Advertising Copywriting group on Linkedin and it generated a lot of comment, most of it ridiculing my stand. You can see the thread here.

A lot of people, especially those from the advertising industry were not very happy with what I wrote. And some of them quoted, rather predictably the mighty advertisers Coca Cola and McDonalds. Yet despite spending US$1 billion on advertising in 2014, McDonalds profits were down 15%! And are now lower than they were 5 years ago. Samsung spent US$14 billion on marketing in 2014 and suffered 3 straight quarters of losses for the first time ever.

And I asked how much have Nokia and Blackberry spent on advertising over the last 10 years to get them to the brink of extinction?

Others looked at the quality of ads, with one copywriter stating, “Quite frankly, the quality of most print ads is abominable. They are either badly written or designed, or so “avante garde” that the company’s name and logo are hidden.”

And this is a huge problem in South East Asia where, on the whole what constitutes a good ad – a strong headline or call to action, unique image, and well written copy is often lost in the charge for fast turnaround of materials, low budgets and the habit of marketing professionals not challenging bosses, business owners or even their spouses!

The results can often be catastrophic as immediately forgetable ads that fail to connect with target markets, don’t deliver the right information, are too confusing or worse, look like other ads appear across newspapers and magazines.

The following ads illustrate the approach to advertising in Malaysia over five years of five different companies from telecommunications, hospitality and insurance.



Share or reconnect?
Share or reconnect?


Much of the copy is weak, the messages, if there are any are obscure or try to do too much and the calls to action, if they can be called that, don’t make sense and there are more than one!

But most tragic of all, they have all used the same image to try and connect with their audience.

These ads will accomplish little and are a waste of money. They have very little value for the company and will most likely be ignored by consumers. I suspect they were done in house and no doubt the image is a free download from an image bank.

I cannot imagine any professional marketing director allowing these ads to go out so one can only assume they were approved by bosses who don’t know the importance of a good ad.

Firms wonder why advertising doesn’t work and question why they should have to pay for advertising agencies. Well this sort of advertising is not the solution. Until firms appreciate the importance of a good ad, they would be better off throwing money down a drain.

How to get the competition to advertise your brand

DHL understands better than most that a traditional advertising campaign is expensive and ineffective. But it still wanted to market itself, especially in the face of more efficient and effective competition.

So the firm decided to trick its competitors into advertising DHL across a city in the US.

DHL sent packages via competitors such as TNT and UPS to addresses that were awkward to deliver to. To ensure they weren’t caught the boxes were covered with a special ink that turned black when the boxes were chilled to sub-zero temperatures.

The ink was temperature-activated and as it warmed up, the ink faded revealing a large message that said “DHL is faster.”

The poor deliverymen had to struggle through crowds to deliver the large boxes. Whilst it’s unlikely many people actually noticed anything but it is bound to get a lot of viral exposure.

I’m looking forward to the response from UPS and the others!

Advertising agencies in Asia call their work crap

Spikes Asia is an annual get together for the creative communications industry to share ideas, network and possibly drink too much. It is considered by many to be a melting pot of creative talent from the east and the west and anyone who is anyone in the industry should be there.

There are lots of seminars, workshops and exhibitions. Work exhibited at the event is judged by leading creative minds and awards are handed out to the winners. A Spikes award is much coveted by anyone in the creative industry. The 2013 event was held in Singapore in September.

You are probably wondering why I am commenting on such an event, especially as I have written before that I think there are too many of these events and as a result creative people focus less on delivering value to clients and more on winning awards. Few people agreed with me. I remember some years back we interviewed a creative guy who had won nearly 200 awards and he was only 22!

I’m commenting again because I came across an interesting article on the mumbrella site about comments made at during Spikes Asia. Sonal Dabral, Chairman and CEO of DDB Mudra Group India said, “There is a restlessness among creatives to achieve fame fast without really understanding the consumer or the client’s product.”

Advertising in Asia is crap
Advertising in Asia is crap

He went on to say, ““Greed and shortcuts” are partly to blame for why there is “so much crap” advertising in Asia.”

Calvin Soh, the former creative head of Publicis Asia Pacific and now founder of Ninety Nine Percent said, “If you have a truly great product, you don’t need to advertise.”

You can read the full article here. Leading minds in the creative industries saying that a lot of what they do is crap, that many in the industry don’t understand their clients and that many companies don’t need to advertise does make me wonder why companies continue to let advertising agencies take responsibility for the success or failure of their brands.

Great advertising should help build a relationship

Some TV commercials are remembered for the commercial and some for the product and others for the brand. Although they will never admit it, a lot of agencies want you to remember the commercial whilst the brand wants you to remember the brand so you will go out and look for it and then buy it.

Of course from a branding perspective, it is then that you need to build the relationship with the customer to try and cross sell and/or upsell them, either then or at a later date or to get them to become brand influencers. This is marketing 101 yet it never ceases to amaze me how much money firms spend on marketing (which includes advertising) to acquire a customers yet very little on retaining a customer. In fact it amazes me how much they spend on marketing what is obviously a great product but very little on training retail staff to match the product attributes to a customer’s requirements for value.

Anyway, I came across this fantastic TV commercial for LG TVs. It really grabbed my attention and made me think of buying a TV. Unfortunately I’m not in the market for a TV so I won’t be going to check out the LG TVs. But if any of you are looking to buy a TV and this generates some interest, let me know how you get on at the point of sale. Assuming of course that this model is available here.

Advertising doesn’t work, just ask Microsoft

This is a great ad for Windows 8 from Microsoft Portugal (stick around for the ending) but it’s a corporate driven message and in the social economy, consumers no longer believe or trust corporate driven messages.

On seeing this ad, the first thing most consumers will do is search the net for more information. I did and I came across an interview in the Verge with Gabe Newell, Chief Executive of gaming company Valve who called Windows 8 ‘A great sadness’. He said Windows 8 is ‘inoperable’ and ‘it just hurts everybody in the PC business’.

He went on to add, ‘Rather than everybody being all excited to go buy a new PC and buying new software to run on it, we’ve had a 20% plus decline in PC sales.’

Consumers have been equally disappointed. One commented on extreme tech, “I’ve had win 8 on a desktop since last February and everything you do takes as many as 3 extra steps compared to win7, everything from shutting down to closing a program or web page is unduly complicated. This is by far the worst windows ever and I have been using windows since 1981.”

In December, MIT professor Philip Greenspun said the new operating system was a “Christmas gift for someone you hate.” Although Greenspun liked some of the apps, he hammered just about every aspect of Microsoft’s new software, noting that ‘Microsoft had since October 2008 to study Android and since June 2007 to study the iPhone and its OS, but still couldn’t build a usable tablet experience.’

Late last year Microsoft announced that it had sold 40 million Windows 8 licenses in the first month of sales which began at the end of October 2012. It’s unclear whether those licenses were sold to customers or retailers or how many were upgrades and new purchases.

Microsoft spent $1.6 billion in fiscal 2012 (its year ends in June) on advertising, $1.9 billion in 2011, and $1.6 billion in 2010. Prior to that the firm spent $1.2 billion in fiscal year 2006, $1.3 billion in fiscal 2007 and $1.2 billion in fiscal year 2008.

Despite spending these phenomenal amounts on advertising, according to IDC, Goldman Sachs Research Microsoft’s share of the consumer market has nosedived from 95% to 20% in the last 8 years.


My bet is that Microsoft will find it hard to sustain those early Windows 8 sales if trade and consumer reviews continue to lambast Windows 8.

And no matter how much the firm spends on advertising and no matter how creative or well executed is the advertising, if the product doesn’t work properly, Microsoft’s share of the PC operating market will continue to plummet.

Print advertising done right

Because of the massive increase in advertising noise and clutter, it’s getting increasingly difficult for advertisers to capture the attention of consumers with traditional print ads.

You’d expect therefore that Malaysian advertising agencies would increasingly push the creative envelope, to develop material that makes consumers stop, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.

Sadly, and for whatever reason, the work produced by Malaysian advertising agencies rarely pushes the creative envelope. Furthermore, much of the local agency output focuses way too much on the product and not on the benefits.

Other ads contain far too much copy and weak headings or taglines. Worse still are those ads that make outrageous claims that are ridiculed in coffee shops up and down the country.

The golden rule of any advertising should be, “Sell the sizzle, not the sausage.” In other words don’t focus on the product and how great it is, focus on what it can do for the reader.

Have a strong call to action and include a prominent URL and telephone number. And make sure that there is an answering service. We recently spotted an ad for a German automotive manufacturer and called the number. The phone wasn’t answered and there was no way to leave a message to arrange for a sales person to call back.

A picture really does paint a thousand words so make sure you have an clear, simple image that grabs attention.

Here are some great examples of print advertising from around the world that deliver effective messages.

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British Airways promotion

One of the greatest branding success stories has to be British Airways, the blue riband aviation brand.

Recently the airline hired agency BBH to create a new campaign to explain the history of the company. The final work can be seen below

As part of their work, the agency chose a row of 747s at a terminal. Unfortunately not all the aircraft were BA 747s!

Never mind, the agency got the digital guys to put BA livery on the planes.

Unfortunately, they forgot to delete the serial code of the nearest aircraft which was actually a Virgin aircraft! Not clever, especially as Virgin is BA’s sworn enemy!

Fortunately, during an internal showing to staff, a hawk eyed engineer spotted the offending information and alerted the marketing department!

Ironically, the director, Frederic Planchon is renown for his attention to detail!

You can see the edited shot about 56 seconds into what is in my opinion, a beautifully crafted video.