The B-word in modern business – Mark Earls

03 Apr 2017

When I was first given a department to manage, my then boss gave a simple piece of advice. Don’t imagine, he pressed, when someone comes into your office and closes the door behind themselves for a “quick word” that you’re in for a touching but private tribute to your leadership. What matters to you is probably not what matters to your team; what’s in your head is probably not in theirs; the words you use probably mean something other than what they understand. Hence the old adage that what really matters in communication is what is heard, not what is said; the listener and not the speaker.

I was struck by this thought recently, when at a dinner hosted by AAR, I asked a group of CMOs from some of the brightest businesses “what do you think when someone from your agency or your team starts talking ‘brand’ or ‘branding’?” The reply was pretty rapid and unanimous: “expensive”, “not going to drive acquisition” “embarrassing in front of my CFO”. Not good news if you’re a brand-believer or someone who resorts to brand as marketing top trumps.

This was in strong contrast to what I’d heard the previous week at the IPA EffFes: then, Les Binet and Peter Field’s excellent analysis of the IPA Effectiveness database celebrated effective communications campaigns of a “brand”, as opposed to “activation” nature. In that company, brand clearly is a good thing – it represents a bigger effect not least because effect lasts over a longer time period.

Equally, at the 4A’s Stratfest in New York a few weeks prior to that, many senior US agency planners were beginning to articulate their fear that brand (what they were interested in and the locus of their skills and experience) was fast becoming less important to clients (darn marketers who wouldn’t listen to their wisdom). Instead, the faithless were turning to “growth hacking” and the like rather than brand strategy. Maybe, mused one wit, brand is more venison than beef: for high days and holidays, perhaps not for marketing every day.


Back at the AAR dinner, we quickly landed on an explanation. It’s not that brand is bad per se, it’s just that the word tends to suggest unhelpful associations to listeners in these fast-moving, highly (often to be honest over-) measured businesses. Of course, these top marketers also wanted the kind of longer term fame, preference and pricing advantages that the brand-folk promise (when they talk straight) – in the company of other marketers they, too, might feel comfortable with the word. But in mixed company it’s the word, brand, that’s getting the conversation into trouble.

Part of the issue is that many decision-makers such as founders and investors for these new world marketers will themselves not have much appreciation of the way in which marketing can help. They have often started businesses and managed to grow sales or users rapidly using whatever means comes to hand. When you’ve bootstrapped the business, “brand” seems like additional cost to be viewed skeptically.

Decision makers like this may also be have a very specific financial time horizon to consider: they may be looking to achieve a certain volume of users or scale of revenue in order to gain the next round of funding in 18 months. B-talk often sounds disconnected from these financial realities.

The culture in many newer businesses is also often very engineering and numbers led. And engineering tends to see anything that’s not engineering as “flower-arranging” of one sort or another. Nobody wants to be seen by their colleagues as a flower-arranger (unless, I suppose, you happen to be a florist).

Equally, it may be that the brand-fans are seeing every problem as brand-shaped. Sometimes what’s needed is reputation and long-term building, sometimes the emphasis is more immediate sales or user acquisition, but very often for these kinds of businesses, solutions will involve identifying some rather unglamorous marketing fixes i.e. how can we improve the call-centre experience for customers? Maybe Big Ol’ “branding” isn’t the answer that’s needed.

So what are we to do? Give up on the b-word? In short, no, just don’t use it so much.  Not nearly as much as you do, right now.

  1. Link every marketing proposal and activity to a business issue – something that matters to those at the top of the business
  2. Be sensitive to the financial frame and time-horizon (especially with start-up or Founder owned businesses)
  3. Be really clear about the difference between short-term and longer-term effects and how they contribute differently to performance
  4. Don’t confuse ROI with profit: the first is an efficiency measure, the latter what investors are really after
  5. Don’t forget it’s not what you say or how beautifully you paint things, it’s what your clients and colleagues see and hear that matters

By Mark Earls, award-winning author and consultant @HERDmeister.

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