Branding Refuses to Die 4

Despite the hysteria, branding refuses to die.

There was once a fad belief among internet enthusiasts that new media would destroy branding.

The argument centered on the belief that advertisers would find it more challenging to saturate the market with a more distributed media environment, and therefore struggle to implant narratives into the general consciousness.

That has failed to occur, and probably never will. Ad networks and saturation campaigns have made it easier to shape consciousness on the internet than was possible in the age of segmented radio, television, and print outlets. Now, a single campaign run through an ad network can reach hundreds or  thousands of media outlets.

There’s also a philosophical reason as to why branding retains its hold over culture.

Branding is a narrative created around a product, service, or company. As long as people remain attracted to stories, branding will retain its power.

But in order to be effective, the story told needs to be both authentic and consistent. The most effective variety of branding is derived from the corporate culture. It should be an animating myth that pervades how employees relate to one another and to their customers. It generates internal cohesion and makes any initiative more efficient than it would be otherwise.

If a product or company has no compelling narrative, then it can only produce commodities that compete on cost.

Toy manufacturers understand this. Most toys are merely molded plastic. But they aren’t sold to children with a pitch like

“Hey kids! How would you like to fiddle with this thrilling object made out of complex polymers derived from petroleum?”

Kids play with Batman, Barbie, or life-like babies. Children use the object to tell stories and as a means of socializing with their peers. It’s identical to a prop in a play.

The story is more important than the thing itself. Microsoft sold Windows 95 by borrowing some of the energy of the Rolling Stones in their initial marketing campaign.

The  organizing user interface feature introduced by Win95 Рthe start button Рwas integrated into the marketing campaign. That brand equity has remained with Microsoft ever since.

Notice the amazing copywriting that overlays the ad.

Start exploring / Start discovering / Start learning / Start doing / Start organizing / Start connecting / Start managing / Start creating / Start playing / Start moving / Start Windows 95

Damn. That’s powerful language! And it reflected genuine enthusiasm about the product.

Compare that to one of the commercials for the recent failed Microsoft Kin. While it’s superficially similar to the Windows 95 commercial of 15 years ago – showing multiple quick shots of people having fun in diverse locations – it’s not nearly as focused. While the former commercial was a masterpiece that targeted each important segment of the target market with a different message (all within one minute) – while including powerful audio cues – the Kin commercial could easily be a beer ad.

Also note the copywriting:

I’m for sharing / And the more you share, the more you get. / That’s us. It’s nice to meet you.

What the heck is that about? It could just as easily be an ad for Facebook or Twitter. Where’s the unique selling proposition? I can do that without a Kin. There’s no call to action there. They’re not using the imperative voice.

No one bought the Kin because Microsoft never actually told anyone to.

Here’s another Kin ad with a similar theme, but with more shots of people using the product. It tells a story, but the product isn’t really part of it. If anything, it makes the people using the phone look like annoying party-poopers that are more interested in diddling with their accessory than actually having a good time. The chosen song also has nothing to do with the Kin. All I see are hipsters at a house party.

It helped the older campaign that Windows 95 was actually a revolutionary piece of software, while the Kin was only an iteration on existing products from competitors. It’s easier to develop an exciting brand narrative when the product itself is distinguished from other competitive offers.

What’s your myth?

About JC Hewitt

JC Hewitt is an independent copywriter and marketing consultant based in New York City. He loves innovative companies of all sizes.

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  • JC, I couldn't agree more with your analysis of why the more recent product launches are hollow from a branding (and selling) perspective as compared to the 95 ad.

    I think there are many reasons how this can happen: primarily something I call the hubris of cooling success. Whether it was the same team, or a new team instructed to do a “continuation” of the former ad campaign, a good ad requires selling points and a call to action, otherwise it's background music to something else in the user's attention at the moment.

    If the Kin ad is supposed to be a continuation of the Windows 95 ad, they failed in both incarnations of the Kin ad to include either selling points or a call to action. If it is supposed to be an “updated” version, it's a mistake in that there is no bypassing of basic selling and branding rules in advertising.

    The Kin ads look as unstructured and discombobulated as any random party footage might, perhaps more so, since the team was obviously avoiding any sense of continuity of narrative. In short, no story. The Kin ads should have incorporated a short list of selling points and could easily have developed a thesis call to action at some point along the sprawling footage. There were several places to put it and many ways to create a finished statement out of either ad, if any effort had been put into producing an advertisement. Perhaps that is in the end the problem. People underestimate that an ad is in the end an ad. There isn't a way to make an ad without the basic components in place.

    A lot of people are viewing the new advertising landscape against a social media backdrop which they frankly don't understand. Social media has no direction unless it's given one. I can't help seeing the Kin ads you provided as instances of an ad agency trying to show that Microsoft “gets it” with regard to “social media” when in fact they don't, with their client nodding along without a clue “well, it's your baby”.

    Social media isn't really a rolling house party. It's something people do to stay connected better–with everyone that they want to, usually for very utilitarian purposes, which is something that the Windows 95 ad embodies perfectly naturally and without apology. Probably it's the ad agency, as well as Microsoft, that doesn't “get it”. Ads are ads. They can evolve, but they don't really change function.

  • Great short essay.

    “Social media has no direction unless it's given one.”

    This is important. I would rephrase it as “Social media has no direction unless it's given a purposeful one.” Your company can't just be “have a blog, be on Facebook and Twitter.” The company has to have goals.

    The weird thing is that at least one division of Microsoft really DOES get social media. The lessons learned from Xbox Live spilled over to create the animating mechanic behind Foursquare. That expertise just failed to transfer to their mobile division.

  • In fact, Microsoft has done a great job branding Windows from time to time, despite the reality that it was the only real OS on the market for PCs since its inception.