“The most important search engine is still the one in our minds” - Jenni Romaniuk

As he tends to, Professor Scott Galloway set the internet ablaze last month (well, the marketing corners of it, at least).

He’s been here before, of course, but his latest comments on the ‘death of brand’ on his brilliant episode of the Uncensored CMO podcast have really got people talking.

If you’ve missed the furore, and I’m not sure how, here’s a verbatim quote:

“The brand has diminished in power, [and] product is the new black again… If you have a truly better product then people will talk about it online and word will get out, so a lot of the capital has been taken out of marketing and is being reinvested in things like supply chain.”

Most marketers took issue with the statement, naturally, but some noted that beneath the hyperbole, ‘Prof G’ does have a point here worthy of consideration. Does a killer product and word of mouth really mean the end for brand? If it does, what does the future look like for brand marketers?

A eulogy for brand?

The idea has been proffered (pun intended) for some time that technology will kill brand by offering consumers accurate, appropriate, related product choices, and thus rendering any priming as irrelevant – or at least, much less important.

One can point to the way that platforms like Amazon work, where the credibility of the platform (plus things like pricing, product, and convenience) does the selection legwork for you, which is one of the supporting arguments used in the Uncensored CMO discussion. The above has been advanced in recent years by the adoption of ‘in-platform’ shopping experiences by Google and others, as well as the rise of review sites and their price comparison mechanisms, referenced by Prof Galloway in the podcast.

I can see the logic, but I’m not sure that it totally works, for several reasons. The most obvious being that the above gives too much credence to things like ‘last click’ attribution, or whichever touchpoint happens to be the last, rather than all the overt and covert priming that led to the purchase decision in the first place (more on this later).

The stance doesn’t consider things like risk aversion, anchoring, prestige, and previous experience as drivers of choice, with brand playing a key role in each of these.

For balance, many modern marketers are too focussed on ‘promotion’ rather than the other elements of the classic 4 P’s (product, price, and place), and so a return to a focus on product in a marketing context is welcome – though it would be remiss of us to think best product, or most revered product, wins. There are too many instances of superior products losing out to the better marketed/priced one, with brand often the killer difference in conditioning audiences to purchase.

[Side point – Prof Galloway’s take also ignores Amazon’s position as one of the biggest advertisers in the UK market, though one assumes he may not be aware of that from his US base and that Amazon’s global strategy will differ territory to territory. Amazon was heavily praised by UK proponents of advertising effectiveness for the Christmas campaign, which leant heavily into emotive storytelling delivered through traditional, high-beam media channels].

Better Brand Health

One of the great thinkers on brand is Jenni Romaniuk of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute (University of South Australia). Her work is must-read stuff for anyone responsible for managing a brand, especially her work on brand codes and signifiers. While I’ve read other previous critiques of Galloway’s stance from the likes of Shann Biglione (whose essay ‘Those that Predict the Death of Brand Don’t Understand It’ is essential reading*), it’s Romaniuk’s work that offers the greatest point of rebuttal, even without quoting Galloway directly.

Romaniuk is responsible for leading the case for distinctiveness, taking an evidence-led approach to building healthy brands with repeatable, recognisable codes. While her books like ‘Better Brand Health’ and her contributions to the seminal ‘How Brands Grow’ are compelling, it’s a piece that Romaniuk co-authored with the B2B Institute at LinkedIn that first came to my mind when listening to Galloway.

Buying situations are crucially important for business, hence ‘product is the new black’, but the things that one recalls in buying situations can be much broader than product features and benefits – again, the best product doesn’t always win. This is where Romaniuk’s work on Category Entry Points (CEPs), the cues that category buyers access their memories in buying situations, comes in.

Yes, we may find B2B products and services from Google, but what prompted us to search there in the first place, and what did we type to search? Yes, we may read some reviews, but which ones are we more inclined to trust, and why?

As one of Romaniuk’s co-authors, Jon Lombardo, puts it: “It’s your memory that got you to Google in the first place and your memory is going to pull strong brands. Strong brands are not built on clicks, but on memories. The other thing that’s very interesting is even when people go to Google and click for something, buyers show a bias for the brands they already know.”

This isn’t SEO, this is BEO – Brain Engine Optimisation

This starts with understanding CEPs and ensuring your brand is distinctive enough to be recalled. How does one do this? By marrying CEPs with Romaniuk’s other most famous work – distinctive brand assets.

These are the codes developed by your brand that it owns in the category – be it a logo, colour, font, jingle, phrase etc. etc.

For all the protestations about technology, search, ‘word of mouth’/reviews etc., nothing can beat priming for purchasing situations through the creation of evocative, memory-building communication. Not convinced? Try this (courtesy of Romaniuk and Lombardo, again):

Imagine you’re a tourist in Dublin.

You’re inside Mulligans, a fabled 168-year-old pub on Poolbeg Street.

A cheery Irish barman ambles over.

“What’ll you have to drink?” he asks.

So, how do you decide what to order? Do you whip out your iPhone and type ‘What drink should I get in a pub in Dublin?’ into the search box?

Of course not.

You don’t search Google – you search your brain.

And since humans are ‘cognitive misers’, you default to simple and fast searches like ‘drink, pub, Dublin’. Your brain retrieves a short-list of options from its memory banks. And then, to save yourself time and energy, your brain usually picks the most obvious choice…”

Did you think of Blue WKD?

Of course not, you and I both know you thought of Guinness.

This doesn’t happen overnight, it happens through a long-term commitment to building codes that are ownable in the category, and then using clever, consistent creative to deliver these to your audience. Well, you can just overspend on excessive share of voice, but research on the ‘Dull Tax’ from Peter Field and eatbigfish’s Adam Morgan suggests that you’d need to overspend by an average of £16million per year on media to make it land – I’ll wait for you to pick yourself up from the floor…

Distinctive brand assets

What do we need to deliver through this emotionally-resonant creative? Visual, aural and linguistic reminders of our brand and its appropriateness, and distinctiveness, in the category.

Distinctive brand assets are your calling card, the shorthand that reminds category buyers who you are the second they start to run through their mental rolodex. They’re the earworms, catchphrases, and visual signifiers that let category buyers know they’re in the right place when they see your assets, and in the wrong place when served by your competitors.

Most brands are lucky to have one of these. To be able to own a colour or icon in a category and have a near ubiquitous level of recall is a rare thing. Indeed, the aforementioned Guinness brand – one of the most successful on the planet and the UK’s favourite pint, only has five according to Prof Mark Ritson (the ‘pint’/product, the Arthur Guinness signature, the ‘classic’ glass, the ‘Harp’, and the typography brand name ‘logo’.

Surprisingly, construction marketers believe that they have more than this. A lot more. That isn’t to say that they are wrong, Guinness is in a massively competitive category with highly-established brands with high levels of brand investment, but the TruthScore data collected thus far says that construction brands have an average of 7 distinctive brand assets – with 21% claiming that they have 10 or more.

There’s an argument that one can have too many assets, that giving an audience too many things to focus on can work against you, but it’s impressive work, nonetheless. If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by that, don’t worry too much, the most popular answer was 3 (three) assets, so even if you’re starting from scratch, you’ve time to catch up.

Wherever you’re at, it helps to understand your starting point, which is why we developed TruthScore – a straightforward assessment of the fundamentals that make up a brand to give marketers a yardstick for their brand assets. The feedback to the tool has been great, and we can make it even more powerful with your input.

The construction sector needs more Guinnesses, perhaps your brand could be the next?

Test your brand here: score.slg.agency/truth-score

Managing Director