Dealing as we do with a world of ideas, abstractions and intangibles, we don’t often get to enjoy the pleasure of rediscovering some real and physical object that we’d lost or forgotten.Â Â A dusty old cassette tape of an 80s radio campaign featuring French and Saunders before they were famous, or a dog-eared hard copy of the work we showed in our winning pitch to Budweiser back in, well, whenever, are the only kinds of artefacts likely to resurface from bottoms of drawers and backs of cupboards.
In our heads, though, it’s another matter.Â There’s loads of stuff in there.Â Most of it is useless rubbish.Â (For example, I remember going a million years ago to see an obscure Midlands blues band called The Steve Gibbons Band, and making a mental note that the eponymous Mr Gibbons was a personable chap and would make a good lead character for a lager campaign I was working on at the time:Â since he must now be aged about two million, even if he is still a personable chap I suspect his “brand fit” is now better with stairlifts and electric scooters.)Â But occasionally, something that’s still useful re-emerges.
Take, for example, the theory of branding developed by the global planning team of my former employers, DMB&B (now no longer a globalÂ agency, and subsumed for some years first within Leo Burnett and then within Publicis).
One of the unwritten rules of being a global agency is that you have to develop some sort of proprietary theory about the way brands work.Â And I must say, having perused a fair few of these over the years, I think DMB&B’s still stands up better than most.
Its main appeal is its delightful simplicity, at least at a headline level.Â Basically, it argues that there are only three kinds of brands, and if you want your brand to succeed you need to understand your three options and focus on being whichever one you’re best equipped to be.
Before I tell you what the three kinds are, I mustÂ just point out that quite frankly no matter what they are, three is the optimal number of them.Â If there were only one or two kinds, it wouldn’t really be a theory at all:Â three is the minimum number possible.Â But with any more than three, the theory becomes too complicated and difficult to remember.Â Can you immediately remember theÂ names of the seven dwarfs?Â Or the five cats in Top Cat?Â Exactly.
Anyway,Â DMB&B’s three species of brand, as best as I can remember, were:
1.Â Power Brands:Â brandsÂ that stand for performance that is objectively superior inÂ some important way to their competitors.
2. Affinity Brands:Â brands that understand you and the way you live, and fit comfortably into your world.
3.Â Icon Brands:Â brands which,Â on the contrary, offer you an entry intoÂ a world which is inÂ some way aspirational and different from your own.
At the time – here the theory rather shows its age – Procter & Gamble was seen as the arch-proponent of Power Brands, investing huge amounts of R&D money into product enhancements thatÂ paid off inÂ commercials featuring dazzlingly white garments held up to sun-drenched windows by awe-struck housewives.Â Unilever, by contrast, was seen toÂ favour the Affinity route, making Persil commercials in which reasonably credible if unusually pimple-free teenagers badgered their mums to help them find their favourite clubbing garments.Â And – unfashionably to modern eyes – Marlboro was held up as a good example of an Icon Brand, offering you access to the outdoorsy, American-Westy, real-manly, full-flavoured world of the Marlboro Cowboy, back in the days before he died of lung cancer.
Nothing is ever quite as simple as we’d ideally like, and beneath this simple three-point headline there lurked a bit of complication:Â in particular, the theory accepts that brands can successfully combine more than one of the three types, and in varying proportions – although in the strongest brands one of the three will always dominate.
(In practice this usually means that Power brands will express a bit of Affinity or Icon in order to provide a bit more right-brain appeal, while Affinity and Icon brands will often stir in a spoonful of Power in order to offer something to the left side of consumers’ brains.)
Still, that’s about it – once you’ve got your head round that, you’ve got it.Â And I must say, the theory still seems to work, on a post-rationalisation basis at least, for pretty much any brand I can throw at it – including, of course, brands in the financial services market, although there aren’t an awful lot taking the Icon option.Â Let’s just spot the chosen option for the first dozen brands that come into my mind:
All retail investment funds brands: all Power Brands, or wannabe Power Brands.Â Not an ounce of Affinity or Icon among any of them.
The big banks:
Barclays:Â Changes direction often, but currently with its new idea that sounds like Every Little Helps but isn’t, definitely Affinity.
NatWest:Â with its dreadful new Helpful Banking thing, also definitely Affinity.
Lloyds TSB:Â For The Journey, also Affinity.Â (Do you notice a pattern emerging here?)
HSBC:Â The World’s Local Bank, also Affinity but withÂ quite a strongÂ flava of Power in all that globalness
Standard Life:Â don’t really do I Like Standard Life any more, but when they did definitely Affinity.
Scottish Widows:Â oddly enough, Icon, in a weird kind of way.
Most direct insurers and price comparison sites:Â Power, sometimes with a touch of Affinity.
MORE TH>N when we used to do it:Â Affinity
Compare The Meerkat.com:Â A tricky one.Â The literal-minded might say Icon, because Aleksandr certainly invites us into a world other than our own.Â Â But actually he’s just kidding, and the humour fits very well in our own worlds – so, actually, Affinity.
The analysis also works equally well – and perhaps more constructively – when it comes to analysing what’s gone wrong with brands that have lost their way.
For example, all those desperate investment brands that now look so lost and hopeless are clearly Power brands that have lost all their power.Â Like detergents that make clothes dirtier, or headache tablets that make you feel worse, they’re utterly unable to achieve the only thing they ever said was important, and are reduced to pathetic and impotent silence.Â By contrast, one of the few retail investment brands that took an Affinity route, our own children’s savings brand Jump, is entirely unaffected by market movements and goes from strength to strength.
Elsewhere in the market, American Express seems to me an Icon brand that stopped understanding, and investing in, its iconicity.Â (??)Â When I use an Amex card, I want to feel that I’m Carey Grant, waiting in a Monte Carlo cocktail bar for Princess GraceÂ to pull up right outside in her Mercedes 300SL gullwing.Â Now, I just feel I’m me buying a couple of pints in a Victoria boozer and collecting a meaningless cashback.
And apologies for returning to MORE TH>N again, especially since everythingÂ I say on the subject is inevitably laden with baskets-full of the sourest of grapes, but it really is oneÂ of the few brands where, ever since the demise of Lucky at least, I really find it quite impossible to tell which of the three routes, or which combination, it’s actually trying to adopt.Â You know those funny little commercials with the 70s soul songs?Â Hardly iconic;Â not powerful;Â and do many of us really feel any sense of affinity with them?Â
Anyway.Â Enough of this.Â Â To be honest, I have uncomfortably mixed feelingsÂ writing about this elderly DMB&BÂ brand analysis approach.Â Â Is itÂ pleasingly simple and sensible,Â or foolishly naive and simplistic?Â
Maybe a bit of both.Â But on the upside, you’ve just read a lengthy piece about brands without coming across a single tiresome modern buzzword like “heuristic,” “semiotic”, “algorythm”, “co-creation” or “experiential.”Â And none the worse for that, the old luddite in me says.Â Â Â Â Â ï¿½