True marketing leaders: following the money, not fads & fashion

“The 7 Deadly Sins of Brand Bureaucracy” was the first article I wrote for Market Leader back in 2002marking the start of our campaign to cut through the bull***t and buzzwords of branding. In this post I share highlights from my piece in a recent special anniversary edition of Market Leader, which re-visits the issues from 16 years ago.

Marketing has of course undergone seismic change since the article appeared; the digital double-whammy of the iPhone and social media has changed how we connect and communicate with people forever. However, many of the fundamental challenges remain today, and some have even grown in size.

The good news is that a new generation of marketing leaders has emerged to show the way forward. Here we look at how they are ensure that branding aligns, engages and inspires their organisations to drive growth.

Challenge 1: Go beyond image wrapper branding

Mis-guided companies still expect an ‘image wrapper’ of a fancy logo and flashy advertising campaign to attract customers, covering up the weaknesses of an under-performing product. One such exercise was Yahoo’s 2014 logo tweaking, a waste of time for a business in crisis where revenue had dropped by 36% in the previous five years. The comments of  CEO Marissa Mayer served only to reinforce the perception of many non-marketers that branding is bull***t and buzzwords:

“We wanted a logo that reflected Yahoo – whimsical, yet sophisticated, having a human touch – with a mathematical consistency .”

The full potential of branding is only realised when it engages and aligns the whole business to deliver value for consumers and shareholders alike: an approach we call ‘brand-led business’. The real challenge is to consistently deliver against the brand promise, based on a set of tangible brand truths, as summed up by BBDO’s Bridget Angear, convenor of judges at the IPA Effectiveness Awards (1).

Savvier consumers mean the gap between a brand’s promise and the reality they experience has to close. Communication to build unrealistic aspirations is being downgraded in favour of re-engineering their products and services.” 

Airbnb’s CMO Jonathan Mildenhall is a marketing leader using the brand idea to drive a better customer experience. The brand’s purpose, ‘To inspire people to live anywhere in the world (even for one night)’, is ‘baked in’ to the brand experience. Best practice in the core service has been captured, codified and shared with hosts. Ideas include responding to booking queries within 24 hours and ensuring guests’ ideas for their trip match with the ‘hosting style’.

The customer experience is the star of an effective global communication campaign. ‘Don’t go there. Live there’ contrasts scenes of conventional tourist activities with scenes showing how you can live like a local if you stay in an Airbnb. The campaign has driven double-digit increases in awareness and on key equity measures.

Action point: harness the brand to drive the whole business not just communication and visual identity

Challenge 2: Follow the money, not fads and fashion

The temptation for marketing directors to follow the latest new fad or fashion is bigger today than it was back in 2002. Every week a sexy new social media channel seems to pop up, selling itself as the next big thing. Scaremongering, headline-grabbing social media experts urge you to keep up, or risk extinction. It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that the main driver of social media usage in our research is “Keeping up with latest trends”. Less than a quarter of companies are basing their social media usage on tangible evidence of business benefits. And this proportion has barely shifted since research we did  five years ago.

Matt Bushby faced just this challenge at Just Eat, the fast growing restaurant delivery business, when he took over as Head of Growth Marketing. Four separate teams ran social media, all chasing ‘likes’ and ‘followers’, with inconsistent measurement and no link to business performance. After a radical reorganisation, a unified strategy now focuses on driving ‘brand response’ to sell more stuff, with tracking of conversion from clicks to orders. Activity focuses on the key driver of brand growth, penetration,  driving incremental orders from new customers.

Smart use of social media addresses specific business issues. For example, locally targeted ads promote restaurants in a customer’s area.‘Dynamic Product Advertising’ (DPA) shows a range of different restaurant options, based on interests potential customers have expressed  before. Social media now drives 16% of total orders with a cost per order below the company’s benchmark.

Just Eat also shows how to build the business and the brand at the same time: selling more stuff doesn’t have to mean selling the brand short. In 2016 content was low quality and sought likes and laughs, wheras the focus today is now on ‘thumb-stopping’ creative that stands out in a mobile news feed. Higher quality foods shots create appetite appeal to drive brand response but also enhance brand equity. An example is the ‘Chewmongous’ campain which drove 72,000 engagements and more importantly 24,000 orders. To drive results like this, Just Eat creative is developed against three key objectives:

Action point: follow the money, not fads and fashion, ensuring that all marketing including social media is focused on selling more stuff

Challenge 3: Combine sizzle and sausage

The obsession with emotional ‘sizzle’ highlighted back in 2002 shows no signs of abating. If anything, the rise of social media has made things worse. Many marketers now feel obliged to create and curate entertaining ‘content’ that establishes an ‘emotional connection’ with consumers, irrespective of the product category and the nature of the brand. The risk with this approach is ‘sponsored entertainment’: marketing that is heavy on emotion, but light on brand linkage.

Marketing leaders like Joy Howard, CMO of wireless home entertainment system brand Sonos, recognize the importance of emotional sizzle, but also the need for product ‘sausage’. She has led the creation of distinctive marketing that tells an emotionally compelling story where the brand is the hero. The brand idea, ‘Listen Better’, is rooted in a superior product experience compared to conventional speakers. Emotional sizzle comes from the beautiful design of the speaker system and user interface, and humorous communication making fun of the ‘listening fails’ of conventional speakers. The campaign challenges the viewer by stating, “You’re better than this”.

Action point: ensure that emotional sizzle is backed up with product sausage

Challenge 4: Root brand purpose in the real world

Brand purpose is a topic that has got hotter in the last 16 years. But confusion about the purpose of purpose leads some companies to ‘ladder up’ too high into the emotional stratosphere, losing all touch with product reality. In particular, a common mistake is thinking that the brand’s role has to be rooted in a lofty social mission. This is illustrated in comments by  Stephan Loerke, Managing Director of the World Federation of Advertisers:

Marketers see purpose as the bigger picture, but people see it as what you do in daily life. Purpose isn’t necessarily about saving the planet. It doesn’t have to be worthy per se; it can be about taking small and meaningful actions.”

Diageo CMO Syl Saller and her team on the Bailey’s brand recently worked to tighten the link between brand purpose and product truth. The previous ‘Make Women Shine’ campaign sought to empower women, a higher order mission that lacked relevance and credibility. “People didn’t want Bailey’s to help them shine,” Syl observed. Insight work revealed that a more relevant brand role was to simply stand for enjoyment, leading to a brand purpose about ‘The Pursuit of Pleasure’.

Even when brand purpose does center on social impact, it should remain rooted in the product category. Lifebuoy soap a good example. The brand’s purpose is ‘To create accessible hygiene products and promote healthy hygiene habits.’ The ambition is to change the hygiene behaviour of 1 billion consumers across Asia, Africa and Latin America by using Lifebuoy to helps kills germs and prevent diarrhoea. Great for society but great for brand owner Unilever’s bottom line too, as many of these billion people are likely to become new Lifebuoy consumers.

Action point: create a brand purpose that makes everyday life better but that is also rooted in the product category to sell more stuff 


Many challenges still stand in the way of branding being a driving force for business growth. The true marketing leaders of today are overcoming these challenges by drawing on a multi-dimensional skill-set, blending strategy & creativity, data & human empathy, imagination & financial nous. And always with a laser-sharp focus on the ultimate and enduring objective of marketing: to sell more stuff (SMS).