You’ll often hear experts explaining, at great lengths, the difference between advertising and branding. They’ll tell you that advertising (and marketing) are “small picture” tactical disciplines, aimed at selling products or services. And they’ll wax poetic about how branding is focused on strategy and the big picture, creating an overall image for a company and then developing, nurturing and cementing emotional bonds between consumers and the company.
They may also insist that clear lines should be drawn, between advertising and branding. In their view, the role of marketing and advertising people is to conform to the brand that’s been created for the company as they sell the product. Some even speak of “enforcing” the brand, to make sure advertising and all other departments fall in line. Which is all sounds quite intense…
But the full story isn’t that cut-and-dried. The tactical/strategic distinction between branding and advertising definitely, a brand identity that’s carefully developed and nurtured is crucial for a company’s long-term success, and message consistency is important.
The lines are blurrier, though, than many business experts would lead you to believe. In reality, there needs to be a symbiotic relationship between the “brand people” and the “advertising people.” That’s because advertising, particularly creative advertising, is the factor which may be most important in building a brand.
The Creation and Execution of a Branding Strategy
In brief, a company’s brand is much more than a logo or slogan. The brand defines the company’s identity, its mission, its culture and what it promises to customers or clients. It’s the “reason for being” that differentiates the company from the competition. That explains why creation of a brand – and a brand strategy – is a certainly a “big picture” decision and process.
The logo and slogan are simply memorable ways of identifying the brand, reminding employees of the company’s mission and culture, and promising customers what the company will consistently deliver. The brand strategy is much more important, because it spells out how the company will communicate its message to the public, and continually reinforces that message while building a strong, lasting, emotional connection.
Some companies’ products or services lend themselves to a brand strategy which relies heavily on social media interaction with current and potential customers; many have dedicated teams which continually monitor all platforms and respond personally to all mentions of their firm or the competition. Others take the idea of a community with an emotional bond to their company literally; for example, Harley-Davidson has established and funded the Harley Owners’ Group (HOG for short), to reinforce their customers’ emotional connection with the brand.
Not all companies have products or services suitable for those types of approaches. Others need primary branding channels with a much wider reach, and they rely heavily on advertising to establish and build their brand. But not just any advertising.
The Role of Creative Advertising in a Branding Strategy
Let’s take a look at two very different types of companies, to see how creative advertising has helped them communicate their messages and grow their brands.
Ever wonder how a startup like Airbnb got so big, so fast? Sure, they identified a underserved market that was primed for growth. Yes, they hacked Craig’s List to poach customers and used some unique tech strategies. You’re right, the additional of a referral program brought in lots of new customers. All of those approaches, plus some clever marketing, drove the company’s early growth.
But from 2014 onward, Airbnb registered vastly increased levels of bookings and revenue, largely due to creative advertising linked to new branding strategies. First came the “Belong Anywhere” campaign. The company reoriented itself, as its CEO described, from being a “property listings” company to becoming a “culturally driven brand.” The change stemmed from research showing that millennials customers weren’t just looking for a place to stay. They were searching for shared experiences and a sense of belonging.
Instead of running commercials focused on selling rooms, Airbnb ran huge commercial branding ad flights. One followed a woman traveling the world, seeing sights and making new friends (of course, she was ostensibly staying in rooms booked through the company, but that was never mentioned). Another ad featured the experiences of a couple that the company flew to an Australian Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
The compelling human stories were shot in striking style with quick cuts and uplifting music. On their surface, they told the story of people’s travels. At a deeper level they told the story of a company dedicated to enriching people’s lives, in a creative and artistic way.
Airbnb then melded a community-building program with creative advertising. For “One Less Stranger,” Airbnb gave away a total of $1 million, in increments of $10, to their hosts (the people who rent out homes or rooms through the company). Recipients were asked to use the money to perform an unexpected, creative act of hospitality for a stranger. The resulting stories were documented for use in compelling ads, once again shot creatively and artistically but with barely a mention of rooms for rent.
These are the type of brand-building activities which many firms would publicize through press releases or dry advertisements. Airbnb used creative advertising to strengthen its brand message – community and a sense of belonging – and has seen astronomical growth as a result.
How do you effectively promote a worldwide brand for a company that sells toilets and faucets? You need to get extraordinarily creative. (This writer understands the problem from first-hand experience; he once had to create 500 words of compelling ad copy about a plain white, porcelain bathtub.)
Kohler, an American firm founded in the 19th century, was one of the world’s leading manufacturers of bathroom fixtures. Kohler’s products were innovative, high-quality and overwhelmingly favored by industry professionals. However, the brand did not register in the minds of most consumers, who viewed faucets and sinks as interchangeable products.
In 1967, the company unveiled a new branding campaign, “The Bold Look of Kohler.” It supported Kohler’s new lines of fixtures in striking designer colors, and provided an immediate boost in brand recognition and favorability along with a surge in sales. Over the years, Kohler’s “Bold” branding campaigns have evolved, always firmly in tune with customer desires and artistic sensibilities.
For example, when abstract art became fashionable, Kohler’s print ads simply featured abstract photographs of showers and faucets with just a “The Bold Look of Kohler” tag line at the bottom. TV branding ads shot in the early 2000s featured storylines like a band that stops trashing its hotel room after being spellbound by a Kohler bathtub, and a woman with four arms washing herself in a multi-headed shower. In a later ad, an accomplished architect is presented with a beautiful Kohler faucet and asked to design a home around it. All of the brand ads were produced by some of the nation’s specialists in creative advertising.
There’s one commonality to all of these ads: they weren’t pitching the latest advances in bathtub or faucet technology. They were devoted to reinforcing the boldness and quality of Kohler products, and the company’s powerful brand.
Kohler’s branding slogan has changed slightly over the years to “Bold Knows” and “Never Too Bold,” and its ads have kept pace with the times. But what hasn’t changed is the company’s reliance on creativity to reinforce its brand and further its growth. Those aren’t easy goals for any company, and they’re particularly difficult when you’re essentially selling a commodity.
But as much as any company ever has, Kohler has clearly demonstrated the importance – and success – of using creative advertising for branding.
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