Times are tough. Budgets are tight. Businesses are scrutinizing every line item and asking, "Do we really need this, and do we really need it now?" And when they get to the line item marked "Brand Expenditure," it's a good question.
It's one thing to make a case for advertising expenditure. It's quite a different story for broad-based brand spending -- for things like understanding, defining and articulating a brand, making sure we look the same and say the same things across all our points of consumer contact.
As someone who runs a brand agency, you might expect the next thing I say to have something to do with the magical economics of brand valuation and the efficiencies of brand-building while the economy is lying fallow.
But I'm to say something different. And that is this:
The most important dollars you spend in the whole marketing budget are the ones that define your Brand DNA, the emotional blueprint that expresses the highest aspirations of the brand. Brand DNA is the mantra against which every consumer-facing move the organization makes is evaluated. Virgin calls it Virginity. Disney calls it Magic. Nickelodeon calls it Kid Power.
The reason spending in this area is so important is because Brand DNA drives the people who drive your company. Especially when times are tough, the teams that are the lifeblood of companies, the people who staff these brands, need to have an intense emotional connection with their brands.
It is our experience across companies from Fortune 500 to start-ups, from biotechs to salty snacks, that there is nothing so motivating to the people who have to make the brand sing in the marketplace than a clear and inspirational Brand DNA.
For instance, when we worked for McNeil Consumer & Specialty Products, a Johnson & Johnson company, we moved, SWAT team-like, from brand to brand, from Motrin to St. Joseph, laying down an emotional blueprint for the respective brands. We started this journey as an exercise in refining the way each brand approached the marketplace.
But it quickly became apparent that the most significant by-product of the exercise was cultural. An internal passion for the brand seemed to be ignited by the exercise, teams coalesced around the answers. Suddenly, the brands gained a higher purpose, a magnetic quality for the people around them, and seemed to attain an almost magical momentum and energy. At their best, the brand DNA became self-fulfilling prophecies.
McNeil positioned St. Joseph Aspirin, a once-venerable children's aspirin, as a brand for adults concerned with their heart health. The great revelation from our work on the brand was that it acted like a little time warp, taking boomers on a "flashback" to an idyllic white-picketed America of their youth.
The team quickly saw that what they were sitting on wasn't a pill, but a time machine, the hidden key to a golden time and place etched on the heart of every red-blooded American. The question wasn't "Do we have anything here?" but rather "How do we do tap the 500,000 horsepower that this thing might have under the hood?"
And that's a question that gets you out of bed in the morning. That gets you thinking in the shower. That gets you bouncing theories off your teammates in the cafeteria. It's the kind of question that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up when you were in B-School.
It's the kind of question that made the relaunch of St. Joseph an unquestionable success story. And it's the very pursuit of that kind of tingle that makes McNeil one of the greats.
The internal cultural power of good Brand DNA, I have come to believe, is born of a simple truth -- people like to work on good stuff. Or at the very least on "the good" within the stuff they are working on. It's easy to disconnect from the heart of the matter; it's easy to settle for vagueness around why the brand is pretty good. But what we all really want to feel, deep in our bones, is that we are connected to a clear understanding of why the brand is great, and part of making that greatness manifest.
So I say this to those who have red pens poised above the line item marked "Brand...anything." If you stand by your vow that your people are your greatest asset, then you cannot put too great a price tag on inspiration. Let the brand's greatness lead the teams, and let the teams lead the company to greatness.