We know our products but not our brands.

It’s an accusation. It’s also a fact. When I do my workshop on creative briefs, I always ask participants to do what I call my Albert Einstein Challenge (which I’ve written about here before). Einstein is famous for having said, “If you can’t explain it to a child, you don’t understand it yourself.”

So the challenge is this: explain your brand to a child. Your brand, not your product.

Guess what usually happens? Participants explain or describe their products. Because they don’t understand their brand. Not all of them. Most of them.

It’s not an easy exercise. Which is why I do it. Because it is, if nothing else, clarifying.

Workshop participants from financial institutions and insurance companies in particular struggle with this exercise. Can you figure out why?

Because their business is a parity product. When marketers from these kinds of companies try their hand at this exercise, their so-called “brand” descriptions end up sounding like every other bank or credit card or insurance company.

Sometimes they see this. Sometimes they don’t.

I’ll ask for a volunteer and someone will speak up.

“We protect the things you love and care about the most.” It’s a typical answer from an insurance company marketer.

So I put their description to the test. I ask two questions:

First, have you described your brand or your product? I put this question to everyone in the room. The honest folk speak up and say, “Product.” Sometimes, someone will say, “category.”

Second, I ask, can another brand in any category say the same thing? The brand zealots get defensive, and so they should. All brands need brand zealots, albeit zealots with an ounce of self-awareness. I admire brand zealots, and figure that if you work for a brand, you care about the brand. I’m not always right about that, of course.

Again, the honest folk speak up and say, Yes, other brands could make this claim.

But it’s at this point when the objections fly.

Someone will point to the example I use to explain the exercise: Nike. It’s one of the most studied brands on the planet. We all know it pretty well. I offer two options for the Einstein Challenge: One option is “Athletes wear Nike.” The other option is “Nike brings out the athlete inside of you.”

Which one describes the brand?

If you chose the second option, you’re right. Could a child understand it? That’s debatable, but it reflects a well-known promise Nike has been espousing for decades.

And then someone will say, “Yeah, but Adidas could say that.”

My Socratic instincts kick in. I say, “You’re right, Adidas could say that. Why don’t they?”

It usually takes a moment, but then someone speaks up. “Because Nike owns it.”

Yes. Nike owns it. It’s translated into public-facing language using three words—Just Do It.

Lots of other sneaker or athletic-wear brands could say “Just do it.”

They don’t. They can’t.

The problem is when marketers forget why they can’t.

BMW has been saying that it is the “Ultimate Driving Machine” since the 1970s. Mustang could probably say that too. Or Ferrari. Or Corvette. Or any number of fast, powerful automobiles. Or motorcycles.

When marketers forget why a brand is a brand, why a brand is not a product, is it any wonder they struggle to write a creative brief?

(About the images I chose for this essay, a logo and a photo of an object. One is a brand, the other is a product. First the easy question: which is which? Now the hard one: Describe the brand without mentioning the product.)



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