Ask most people in and out of business about branding and they will tell you its the name, colours, and logos of a company. Ask them about marketing and they say it is about flogging more stuff. But surely CEOs and other senior managers don't think this do they? They must understand the strategic importance of positioning and segmentation as we brand a company. Or the complexities of consumer insight, proposition development, and pricing as we create consideration and preference, generating ROMI, as we market.

Actually in most businesses I think the strategic understanding of these opportunities and processes is poor even at the highest levels. And we, as marketers, do a bad job of communicating these differences; we are supposed to be experts at getting ideas to spread – yet we can't even do it with our own profession. This is compounded by the modern obsession with branding and brand value.

Go back to the 1930s and marketing was a pretty basic process of simple advertising shifting more product. Sure Procter & Gamble were "managing brands" but most marketers were just flogging stuff that they didn't have much of a hand in developing. Most of the interesting work was happening in PR. Following the Second World War and strategic marketing starts to take off. I insisted that anyone who worked for me read the classic Theodore Levitt HBR paper Marketing Myopia (if you work in marketing and haven't read it shame on you). Levitt made the case for marketing to move beyond a sales stimulation function to one that created value through owning the process by which a company could tap into consumer needs and create branded propositions which became long term profitable assets.

Marketing was doing OK during the 1950s and 60s. The post war growth in consumerism proved the case day after day that this strategic approach to marketing worked. The marketer was a respected member of the team. But then something started to breakdown. Whether it was the oil crises of the 1970s putting the break on consumption or cost cutting in the 1980s, or the rise of the services sector in the 1990s, marketers seemed to lose the strategic agenda. Suddenly brand was the asset we were all managing. The marketing process seemed to lose its magic at creating tangible value and was replaced by intangible value. Companies started investing in their brands – there was money to be made, and value to be built, through the name and logo. Run a few workshops, develop a few names and designs, and then implement. Even better that the CEO was prepared to attend some of the workshops! This was much easier than working in the strategic marketing salt mines. This focus on the surface was conveniently supported by the prevailing Zeitgeist of the 1990s and 2000s. Fashion and celebrity was what caught people's attention.

I think we are at a turning point once more. The worst recession since the 1930s has broken something again. We are still in the eye of the storm but opportunity comes from thinking about the long term impacts. It's ironic that in all major recessions innovation and entrepreneurship actually increase despite the economy tanking. Talent comes out of big businesses and capital chases new ideas as returns wither elsewhere. The successful innovative start-ups disrupt markets and steal share from incumbents. They are closer to their customers, deliver better value and find profitable niches.  In turn this means that the incumbents need to raise their game. Richard Lambert, the Director General of the CBI, said at the RSA on Monday night that the last 20 years had been an aberration of business and capitalism. The link between access to capital and risk was weakened and seemingly "leverage" (or debt to you and me) was seen as an almost guaranteed way to make money. The broader impact of businesses on society and humanity was subsumed by the out of control growth obsessed markets. We now see it was all so unsustainable.

Forgetting humanity when humanity is your route to productivity, customer satisfaction, and even investment was clearly never a long term winner. This gives marketers the biggest opportunity for decades to re-engage and move away from the surface obsession with branding and go back to creating extraordinary value by leading the charge of putting humanity back into business. That's what a marketer has the potential to deliver on the board. Combine this with creative vision and an ability to communicate and we might just see the re-emergence of strategic marketing and marketers as long term value creators.

What do you think? Do you think that marketing needs to reclaim a strategic agenda? What's your experience?

Please comment and share your view below. 

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Justin Basini

Entrepreneur, author of Why Should Anyone Buy From YOU?, blogger (www.basini.com), business, brand and marketing thinker and do-er, husband and dad


  1. I wouldn't disagree with some of what you say here but I would with the premis that you can divide brand from marketing. Brand is now so intertwined with strategic marketing that it IS the reason brand has superceded the market strategists. The recession places even greater margin pressure on suppliers of all products and solutions…a strong brand allows for premium pricing, and when people aren't spending they get more decerning..they choose brands they know and brands they trust…

  2. Thanks for your comment which I think is insightful.

    What I believe is that when seen as a strategic process of building long term competitive advantage brand is surely, as you say, intertwined with strategic marketing.

    However my concern is that in many businesses neither brand building nor marketing ever get beyond the tactical, and in these situation "surface level" branding is an easy activity to invest time in rather than the deeper process of strategic marketing.

    Thanks again for your comment.


  3. Hello Justin. Great article. Thank you for confirming what I felt was going on in the world right now. Branding – on a deeper level can really turn a product around. Just look at what happened to Dawn, the soap dish, a slicked washed out P&G brand: When they started donating their product to the bird rescuers from the Exxon Valdex disaster, suddenly their brand became a soul. I don’t have the sales numbers, but I’m sure they now have a huge edge over their competition. Add a deeper meaning to a product and it resonates with the consumer on a deeper level. Btw, a good read in that context: “Start with Why” by Simon Sikek. Greetings from California, Marc

  4. Hi Justin, I came across this today, about a year and a half after you wrote it and it seems even more likely now that you are right. Stay with me on this. It seems plain.
    It seems that Branding, what you want others to think of you, is yielding to Reputation, what others actually think of you as the battleground. Branding is mainly done by mass communication – telling others what to think – whereas Reputation is determined by the actual experience of the buyers who then independently talk to each other. Then marketing, branding and Communication successively failed to the extent they decided their job was to make the company and its products ‘look good’ without too much regard for if it actually ‘was good’. Buyers decided to ignore marketing and PR messages, and find out for themselves by switching to more of what we call social media. Companies who ignore this, much as Leavitt said in Marketing Myopia, are doomed. Sound right?

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