Oh, Don Draper. If only it was that easy.

In Uncategorized on October 5, 2010 at 7:50 am

Photo Credit: AMC

American Movie Classics, the cable network known as AMC, has pulled back the curtain on what really goes on in an ad agency. Not because it created an award-winning ad campaign, but rather by reintroducing Madison Avenue to America via the industry’s golden age, the 1960s. Mad Men has also launched everything from social media blogs and interactive casting calls for the show to an iPhone app designed to tap into popular vintage cocktails—one of the tools of the fictional trade. And, well, the not-so-fictional one too.

The show’s popularity reminds me of why I love going to the occasional cocktail party. Now, when someone lights a cigarette, and asks, “What do you do?”, all I have to say is, “Advertising.” More often than not, this answer elicits a string of non-related follow-up questions: Do you all still drink and have affairs and plot to stab others in the back? “Why, yes, of course.” I say with a wink that says otherwise.

Rarely do my dinner companions engage in deeper conversation regarding design or social media or brands. I’m fairly certain it’s because most folks believe that Don Draper’s perfect coif is the beginning and end of any ad-related topic. Back to the dinner party conversation. It usually goes something like this. Everyone’s seen an ad, right? (Collective nod.) We all know a good ad when we see one, yes? (Assorted yawns.) All right, what do you say we just skip over that talk on branding? (Glazed eyes.) End of conversation. Pass the crème brûlée.

Simply put, it can be difficult to explain branding in terms that just about anyone can understand. And no matter how well you define it, the sound of Don Draper striking another match will likely sound, ahem, sexier. Certainly sexier than the definition found on Google: “Branding is a traditional advertising method used to elicit latent response from a target based on cumulative impressions and positive reinforcement.”  Accurate, yes, but if it’s that complicated to read, not many will do what it takes to apply those principles to their business. So, for the sake of simplicity, let’s boil it down to its essence: A brand is the sum of everything you do. This includes anything or anyone that comes into contact with the consumer on your behalf. Branding is the packaging on your product; it’s the way you answer your phone; it’s the clothes you wear; the search function on your website; the wording on your performance reviews; the shape of your business card; and the Franklin Gothic typeface in your ads. Basically; it’s everything beneath the surface that supports your messaging.

To put this in perspective, let’s consider a few variables in a typical purchase decision: price, packaging, perceived value, color/shape, shelf placement, celebrity endorsement, product features, distribution, word-of-mouth, consumer reports, promotions/incentives and values/lifestyle match. Obviously, branding cannot carry the entire burden of sales. However, what branding can do is even better. Branding can set the stage for selling, by starting a relationship between your business and the consumer. As any salesperson worth his or her salt will tell you, sales are always built upon relationships.

In less complicated times, brands were simply used to identify cattle. In English lexicon, the word “brand” originally meant anything hot, like a burning stick. By the Middle Ages, it became common practice to burn marks into livestock to identify the owner. In the process, a proliferation of brands emerged, making it necessary to record them in books that local ranchers could carry in their back pocket. Laws were passed requiring registration of brands and the inspection of cattle driven through various territories. Penalties were often imposed on those who failed to obtain a bill of sale with the corresponding brands of the animals purchased.

Today’s media landscape would be much easier to sort out with a brand book. Magazines have branched into hundreds of specialty titles. TV and radio have grown to hundreds of channels each. And the Internet has become a huge, potentially overwhelming source for news, music and entertainment. As a result, media outlets have been forced to focus on a niche like a laser. Whether it’s Mad Men, NPR, The Wall Street Journal or XM Radio, much of today’s media content is keenly tailored for a well-researched and narrow market. Media has been splintered, and there’s no going back. Is this a good thing as it applies to brands? My guess is that most consumers would say that it undoubtedly is—there are better options, custom-fit to varied lifestyles. And most advertisers would say that it undoubtedly is not—it’s simply harder and harder to truly connect with potential consumers who are fine-tuning their radar against the constant barrage of messaging.

So, what is a business to do in this rapidly-changing-highly-evolved-tricked-out world? It must devote time and effort to better defining their brand as it pertains to its target audience. Despite all the changes, nearly every medium still has its merits. Rather than trying to use them all, which is what advertisers used to do, businesses need to do what the media have done. They need to focus. The days of a company being all things to all people are over. Those responsible for branding need to understand—truly and deeply understand—whom they are trying to reach. Then they must craft a compelling—truly compelling—messaging platform to touch those people.

So, what’s your brand? If you’re like many small business owners, you don’t have one. That’s okay. You’re in the majority. Most people don’t expect you to have one. Instead, they expect you to just fade away into obscurity. Your job now is to find out who you really are. Think of what embodies your work, something you can stick to. Then find out what you need to do to make it a reality. And if you are seeking a truly intoxicating Don Draper-like experience, consider hashing it out over a three-martini lunch.

Jason Alley is principal of Message, a full-service marketing & communications firm in Rapid City, South Dakota.


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