The hotly anticipated head-to-head between Mark Ritson and Byron Sharp was the main event at last week’s Festival of Marketing. Seven years on from publishing How Brands Grow, the book is still the subject of endless debate. Many buy wholeheartedly into Sharp’s approach. Others take issue with many of his conclusions – the value of targeting is the latest skirmish.
I believe the debate stems from marketers’ discomfort with rigid, rational laws. If you could build a brand by following a formula we’d all be out of a job. Sharp’s response to a critical post on Brand Gym’s blog sets out his stall.
‘Scientific explanations fit the empirical evidence, and very often the explanation feels wrong (try Einstein’s theory of relativity)…..Please judge the conclusions of “How Brands Grow” against how well they fit the accumulated evidence, not how well they fit your experience, because experience (and case studies) can lead us astray, they led intelligent well-meaning doctors to bleed people for two thousand years.’ Link
Agency folk enjoy the art in making brands grow. The science is important, but it isn’t why we go to work every day, and it isn’t what our clients pay us for. We agree with Ritson’s angle, “We don’t study rocks, we study people. We don’t study mountains, we study organisations, which are reflective.”
There are some important takeouts from his approach for design, but it leaves a lot out.
The idea of memory structures plays straight into design’s hands. Millward Brown’s research on what makes effective advertising builds further evidence. It proves that brand communications’ effectiveness is more dependent on branding than any other part of the creative.
Being distinctive, rather than different, builds on this. A brand’s soft elements, visual identity among them, is more important for driving preference than hard product truths.
This is where the book’s usefulness ends. Science doesn’t take culture into account. Without cultural consideration creativity doesn’t resonate with its audience.
Take as an example two acclaimed films that were box office failures.
It’s A Wonderful Life was nominated for 5 Academy Awards and is high on any best-ever movie list. But it lost half a million dollars on its release in 1949. Four years had passed since the end of WW2, economies were growing and optimism was building. People didn’t want to watch an everyman’s story of loss and misfortune (even with the happy ending). The most successful film of the year was the romance Samson & Delilah; an escapist, romantic epic.
The Shawshank Redemption was a box office flop, only making $16m vs. production costs of $25m. It was released in 1994. The Cold War was becoming a distant memory and the economy was booming. Life was good. No one wanted to spend 2 hours in the dark watching an innocent man survive the ultimate school of hard knocks. That year two highest-grossing films were The Lion King and Forrest Gump, charming feel-good stories.
It’s the same for brands. The ones that resonate most reflect what’s going on in culture. For example…
Alcohol has shifted from the old formality of crests and heritage to the new informality of fluid, handcrafted storytelling. Compare the old guard Russian vodkas (Smirnoff, Stolichnaya) with new American craft vodkas (Tito’s, Prairie). The successful new brands’ play to today’s human, fluid and relatable values vs the Russians’ statusful power play.
Skincare has shifted from the authoritative elitism of Clarins or Lancome to the radically simple transparency of Glossier, Thisworks or Deciem. The contrasting codes reflect a change in culture, from women wanting to feel powerfully superior, to women wanting to feel in control and connected.
We could go on…
The pressure from science on the art of branding will only increase. Tech forecasters claim that algorithms will soon be able to create art superior to anything man-made. Will it be the same for commercial art? We’re no futurists but we can’t see computers ever having the intuition to match brands to culture. Hopefully not in our lifetimes anyway.
Image: Ads of the World