So you think you can brand? How branding is poorly branded

I recently attended the 2014 MMM Awards and was struck by how many of the winning campaigns had no sense of brand identity beyond the logo featured in its usual place, the lower right hand corner of the medium.  Yet if you asked any of the ad agencies accepting the awards if they felt that they were building the brand, they would unanimously say, “Of course.  We’re really good at branding.”

Where is the disconnect?  It lies in the very term itself.  Branding is poorly branded.  It has become such a catchall discipline that it has no discipline to show for itself.  It seems that anything done on behalf of a brand is considered branding.  So advertising campaigns are branding, web sites are branding and broadcast spots are branding.  Except they’re not. They are tactics that are done on behalf of the brand, but it doesn’t mean that they advance the brand’s equity in a concerted way.  Placing a logo on promotional piece, or using one of the approved brand colors is a fairly empty gesture toward the concept of what it means to truly create a brand experience across the board.

Not surprisingly, the conversation around branding is significantly altered by rebranding the discourse around the term identity.  If one reframed the question to the proud acceptors of advertising awards as “do you feel that the communication is true to the brand’s identity,” you may get very different answers than just the reflexive affirmative. The question may evoke more questions: “Isn’t identity and branding the same thing?” Or it may provoke a defensive response: “We didn’t do the logo.  We do the more important work of promoting the brand.”  Or it may just not register: “What do you mean? Our campaign is the identity (actual verbatim from a creative director at a top 10 agency).”

This is not merely a semantic issue, but goes to the very heart of the significantly different ways that advertising and branding agencies see their roles and responsibilities. Further, the reward systems incentivizing an advertising vs. branding perspective continually reinforce the disconnect in effect.  Ad campaigns are considered successful if they do a good job building awareness, getting customers to remain engaged for measureable periods of time, and for how well they are recalled by customers after the promotional exposure.  It’s human nature to believe, then, that they naturally advance the brand’s identity and equity.  Branding identities, on the other hand, are considered successful if they create a flattering reflection of a customer’s own beliefs and values…the customer’s own identity. They are measured by brand equity research and customer loyalty over time. These are two very diverse perspectives.  Awareness and memorability do not necessarily equate to reflecting a customer’s beliefs about him- or herself.  And one must carefully examine not just the fact that customers engage with brands, but more importantly, why they engage.  Let’s look at one of the clearest illustrations of the difference between advertising and branding in the consumer services space.


In the late 1990s, the restaurant chain, Taco Bell, fielded a campaign by their advertising agency, TBWA.  It featured a Chihuahua with a Mexican accent, asking people who had purchased Taco Bell food to turn it over to him.  By all advertising measures, the ad campaign was an unqualified success.  The catch phrase—“¡Yo quiero Taco Bell!” (“I want Taco Bell!”)—became part of the popular culture. The Chihuahua had a cameo role in the 1998 Godzilla film, and many toy figures of the dog were distributed. Everybody loved the Chihuahua.  So good branding, right?

Turns out, no. Taco Bell abruptly stopped the campaign in July 2000 after sales fell 6%, and fired TBWA.  It turns out that even though campaign awareness and recall were through the roof, it didn’t make people buy more food from Taco Bell.  That’s because, as argued before, it is not just the fact that customers engage with brands, but more importantly, why they engage.  The Taco Bell brand identity is a fun alternative to typical fast food (i.e. burgers and fries).  This can be seen in the well-branded tag line of late: Think outside the bun.  However, what did the Chihuahua campaign suggest the brand identity was about: 1) dog food, and 2) cultural stereotyping of Mexicans.  TBWA defended their award-winning campaign as being very pro-brand.  However, it was merely pro-advertising; and advertising—as we have seen here—is not always branding.


The very best promotional campaigns accomplish several different goals: 1) building awareness for the brand, 2) building awareness for the messaging in the communications, 4) keeping customer’s wanting more and 3) bringing the brand’s identity to life so that it accrues to the sum total of the experience customers have with it.  Taco Bell’s brand isn’t the sum of the latest campaign, the latest tag line, the latest stunt.  It’s the sum of all aspects of the customer experience it creates over time, from the food to the packaging to the store environment to its accomplishments and failures.  So the next time your agency fields a campaign, no matter how much it pleases you in the moment, ask yourself and them: “Tell me how this is furthering the experience customers have with the brand, and how it is building on the brand’s identity.”  And if the answer comes back “Our campaign is the identity,” fire them.  You shouldn’t be paying someone good money to advance their own causes over those of the brand.

6 Responses to “So you think you can brand? How branding is poorly branded”

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  1. TG says:


    Well said

  2. Gladys Molina says:

    Thank you for articulating this important distinction. How frightening to hear, “Our campaign is the identity.” That’s only a tiny bit more terrifying than “Our tactics ARE our strategy.” Thanks for giving eloquent voice to a critical issue.

    • Vince Parry says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Gladys. “Our tactics ARE our strategy.” Hahahahaha. Good one. I’m astonished how after decades of best practice learnings, so many of our young marketers and creators do not have a sound command of them. Laziness, poor mentoring or just pure ego–one or more of these are undoubtedly at work here.

      • guy says:

        Bingo! So much work today falls to focusing purely on entertainment at the expense of persuasion, it’s as if the industry feels they are mutually exclusive goals. In healthcare, it is especially hard to find work that can walk the tension and deliver a compelling brand idea, that delivers on the brand. The awards shows make a good buck giving away trophies for mediocrity. To your point, I don’t believe most participants even see it — or are willing to acknowledge it if they do. Because then what…?

  3. APIS MEDIA says:

    At DigitasLBi they have a lab within the agency.

    • Vince Parry says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m assuming that, by your comment, you are suggesting that a branding lab within an advertising agency is an effective solution to insure that branding is done properly, according to best practices. If that is not the case, then excuse my editorializing.

      I have personally been involved in both models: branding lab within ad agency, and branding capability detached and run separately. I have never seen the former run smoothly and without corrupting the end product (after all, a “lab” screams “experimenting” vs. executing a proven discipline). Promotional agencies make money off of promotion, and good intentions will inevitably conform the branding capability to be in the service of the promotion, and not the other way around as it should be. This being said, I have never worked at Digitas, so I am not qualified to speak about its capabilities specifically. However, a look at DigitasLBi’s site reveals a lot of promotion, and no branding that I could discern. Branding agencies must be run independently from promotional agencies for the separation of church and state necessary to maintain the integrity of all disciplines.

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