Social studies

Brands hatched

Excellence in Advertising

The consumer is not a moron. The consumer is your wife." While some things have changed since this statement, famous in advertising circles, was made by David Ogilvy a couple of decades ago - other things have not. Many women now work in various sectors of the advertising industry, so references to the wife tend to be few and far between. However, much advertising still "targets" women as the main shoppers of most households and the debate about their intelligence and advertising literacy still rages on.

The evolving conceptualisation of the relationship between consumers and advertisements is just one of the themes that runs through Excellence in Advertising, a collection of 12 essays almost all written by industry insiders, often very high-ranking ones.

The book is sponsored by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising. Its title derives from a training programme of courses, workshops and talks for people in the industry, but I would recommend it more generally to teachers, students and researchers in media studies, cultural studies and sociology. It is particularly useful because, with a few important exceptions, most academic writing on advertising analyses the images and words from the outside, without reliable reference to internal strategies, production processes, divisions of labour, etc.

The book offers up a fascinating range of case studies. The articles that use real examples are so much more engaging, easy to comprehend and memorable than the essays that try to make their arguments with reference to brands X, Y and Z. Although confidentiality is often not an easy matter, out-of-date data - even from the 1970s - would be preferable to bland abstraction. Another characteristic of the examples is that the vast majority concern successful advertising. It would be fascinating to read more analysis of unsuccessful campaigns. Sometimes it can be easier to learn from misinterpretations, mistakes and mishaps. However, it is doubtful that many of these men (and there are no women authors here) would want to associate themselves with failures.

"Brands" are a hot topic in advertising. As Michael Sommer writes in his article representing the client perspective, branding is partly about reassurance: "Branding, generically, means providing customers with reassurance prior to product purchase or experience; at its simplest, seeking the response 'it must be all right if it's from Heinz' or at its most complex, unconscious and almost subversive 'my family will appreciate me more if I use Heinz'." When a brand is truly an asset, the product can actually be perceived by consumers to taste better. Pepsi often wins a blind test against Coke, but the latter wins a branded test, because Coke is the stronger, more positive brand.

Many definitions of brands end up opposing them to products. A product is said to have tangible, rational and functional properties, while a brand is said to have intangible, emotional and symbolic attributes. While the benefit of a product may be whiter teeth or shinier hair, the benefit of a brand is a good feeling, a sense of community or the statement the brand makes to others about the user.

One area of consensus is that the key to brand success is motivating differentiation or what the only academic in the collection calls "sustainable differential advantage". Peter Doyle of the University of Warwick argues that there are various routes to this kind of distinction. The first, unsurprisingly, is quality. As he points out, "Britain's strongest brand, Marks and Spencer, has done little or no advertising at all. There is little correlation between the amount spent on advertising and the strength of a brand."

A second route, according to Doyle, is superior service because it is much less easily copied by competitors; it relies on the organisation's corporate culture which cannot be changed overnight. A third route to "sustainable differential advantage" is to be a pioneering brand because once the brand is "first in the consumer's mind", it is very hard to dislodge and casts a shadow on second comers.

A number of historical changes have led to the rise of the brand and the relative decline of the product in advertising and marketing thinking. The main reason often given for this is that the versatility of modern production means that products are not unique for very long; the competition can copy a product's specifications - sometimes within days. This issue has become particularly pressing in the wake of supermarket "own label" successes. It is only the strongest brands that hold their own against Sainsbury's or Tesco's ranges. This is because "brand personalities" cannot be easily or effectively copied. For example, Tesco's can only stand for so many things in the consumer's mind. It is hard to offer the feelings of Mrs Baxter's, Heinz's, Lipton's and Covent Garden's soups all at the same time.

Another reason for the shift from brands to products is because it cuts advertising and marketing costs. For instance, it is less expensive to advertise a lot of different cereals under the Kellogg's name than to advertise each individual cereal. It is also cheaper to launch products when consumers are given the reassurance of an established brand, hence the proliferation of "brand extensions", of which Virgin probably offers the most extreme example, having moved from records into air travel and now into PEPs, trains, vodka, cola, toiletries, etc. From a broader perspective, we might view the displacement of products by brands as part of a general shift from production to consumption, industrial to consumer capitalism, and the development of consumer-led thinking. This is a shift that is true not only of business and business studies, but of sociology and media studies too.

Sarah Thornton is a research associate, Graduate Research Centre in Culture and Communication, University of Sussex.

Excellence in Advertising: The IPA Guide to Best Practice

Author - Leslie Butterfield
Editor - Leslie Butterfield
ISBN - 0 7506 3129 5
Publisher - Butterworth-Heinemann
Price - £18.99
Pages - 260

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