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Posh Spice & Persil:
Jeremy Bullmore argues that every corporate action and
decision influences peoples perceptions of brands

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Both big brands; both alive; and both belonging to the public

Reproduced with kind permission from the original lecture delivered to British Brands Group in London, December 2001, and later reprinted in WPP's 2001 Annual Report and Accounts.
"Right from the beginning, I said I wanted to be more famous than Persil Automatic."
Victoria Beckham, Learning to Fly, The Autobiography, 2001

In his British Brands Group inaugural lecture last year, Tim Ambler of the London Business School set a depressingly high standard.

He raised a number of critical questions about the nature and value of brands and answered many of them. He left us with one perplexity.

If brands are as important as they are to business - and he left us in absolutely no doubt that they are all-important - why do chief executive officers and their boards devote such a curiously small proportion of their time to their health and nourishment?

With seemly diffidence, I'd like to put forward a possible explanation.

And as a sort of hors-d'Œuvre to the main course of my lecture, I offer you these 13 deeply disturbing brand facts.

  • Products are made and owned by companies. Brands, on the other hand, are made and owned by people... by the public... by consumers.
  • A brand image belongs not to a brand - but to those who have knowledge of that brand.
  • The image of a brand is a subjective thing. No two people, however similar, hold precisely the same view of the same brand.
  • That highest of all ambitions for many CEOs, a global brand, is therefore a contradiction in terms and an impossibility.
  • People come to conclusions about brands as a result of an uncountable number of different stimuli: many of which are way outside the control or even influence of the product's owner.
  • Brands - unlike products - are living, organic entities: they change, however imperceptibly, every single day.
  • Much of what infuences the value of a brand lies in the hands of its competitors.
  • The only way to begin to understand the nature of brands is to strive to acquire a facility which only the greatest of novelists possess and which is so rare that it has no name.
  • The study of brands - in itself a relatively recent discipline - has generated a level of jargon that not only prompts deserved derision amongst financial directors but also provides some of the most entertaining submissions in Pseuds' Corner.
  • It is universally accepted that brands are a company's most valuable asset; yet there is no universally accepted method of measuring that value.
  • The only time you can be sure of the value of your brand is just after you've sold it.
  • It is becoming more and more apparent that, far from brands being hierarchically inferior to companies, only if companies are managed as brands can they hope to be successful.
  • And as if all this were not enough, in one of the most important works about brands published this year, the author says this: "Above all, I found I had to accept that effective brand communication... involves processes which are uncontrolled, disordered, abstract, intuitive... and frequently impossible to explain other than with the benefit of hindsight."
  • All of the above, I believe to be fact. For the sake of economy, and to some extent for effect, I have made some half truths into whole truths and presented them more starkly than perhaps a more conscientious lecturer would have ventured to do.

But all of the above statements are more or less true.

So, in answer to Tim Ambler's implied puzzle - why do CEOs devote so little of their time and intelligence to the care of their most important asset? - I advance this explanation:

Brands are fiendishly complicated, elusive, slippery, half-real/half-virtual things. When CEOs try to think about brands, their brains hurt.

And I sympathise. Given the nature of brands - and the persistent perversity of consumers - who wouldn't choose to concentrate executive time on simple, rational, quantifiable things: like gross margins and case rates and return on capital invested?

I believe it to be an increasing human instinct - and an entirely understandable if highly dangerous one - to over-value that which we can measure and to undervalue that which we can't. There is a comfort to be found in figures: they give us a sense of certainty, however false, in an otherwise chaotic world.

In his usefully corrective book The Tyranny of Numbers, David Boyle quotes the economist Robert Chambers:

"Quantification brings credibility. But figures and tables can deceive, and numbers construct their own realities. What can be measured and manipulated statistically is then not only seen as real; it comes to be seen as the only or the whole reality." And Chambers summed it all up like this:

"Economists have come to feel
What can't be measured isn't real.
The truth is always an amount -
Count numbers; only numbers count."

Perhaps the time will come when the mysteries of brands will be no more; when everything about them can be measured, valued, predicted and replicated. Perhaps. But not in my lifetime; nor even, I think, in yours.

So, with the hors-d'Œuvre behind us, my aim for the main course of this lecture will be to explore most of those 13 deeply inconvenient brand facts rather more thoroughly: not to provide answers or solutions but more, I hope, to shine a little light on these murky matters. Thinking about brands should be a productive rather than a painful occupation - and should lead to a greater confidence in taking intuitive decisions. More often than not, such decisions turn out to be gratifyingly simple.

First, my thanks to Victoria Beckham for the title of this lecture.

If her early ambition to be more famous than Persil Automatic seemed to you surprising - or even laughable - it shouldn't have done. It was very astute of the young Posh Spice to choose not Robbie Williams nor Sir Cliff Richard nor Madonna as her benchmark of fame but the country's best-known washing powder.

Because just about the only thing that successful brands have in common is a kind of fame. Indeed, it's been suggested that brands are the real celebrities. And for most human beings, fame not only holds a powerful fascination but bestows an incalculable value on anything that enjoys it. We value the famous far more highly than the little known.

I do not think, as is often suggested, that this is a new phenomenon. Nor do I think, another social theory, that we the public have invented celebrities as a replacement for the vanished aristocracy. Rather, I think that the aristocracy were of interest to us peasants not because they were aristocratic but because they were the most famous people around. We should not assume that everyone who stands in the rain to catch a glimpse of Her Majesty the Queen is a royalist. The Royal Family continue to engage the interest of us peasants at least as much because they are celebrities as because they are royal.

And then, as Andy Warhol so memorably observed, with the arrival of mass media, particularly of course television, fame became technically available to everyone: if only for 15 minutes.

It is one of the peculiarities of fame - whether for people or products - that real fame appears to be spectacularly untargeted. By that I mean, that the most famous people in the world are known to an infinitely greater number of people than their particular talent or profession would seem either to demand or to deserve.

Victoria Beckham is one such example. So is Madonna. Real fame implies being known to millions of people who have never bought your records and never will. Stephen Hawking is known to millions of people who will never understand a word he writes; and to 10 times as many who will never even try to.

To the consternation of media planners and buyers in advertising agencies, the same is true for brands. A brand, if it is to enjoy genuine celebrity, must be known to a circle of people that far exceeds what we in the business so chillingly call its target group.

It is not enough for BMW to be known only to that 5% of the population wealthy enough even to contemplate buying one. For BMW to enjoy real fame, it needs to be known almost indiscriminately.

I do not know why this should be; I only know that it is.

There are those who believe that it's all to do with envy and one-upmanship: what's the point of your driving about in a £50,000 BMW if 95 per cent of us peasants don't realise just how successful you must be to own one? There may be a bit of truth in this theory: but it surely can't explain the value that Persil derives from being universally famous? And doesn't it seem improbable that we pop a six-pack of Coke or a packet of Oxo cubes into our shopping basket in the hope of arousing envy and admiration in the hearts of all the others at the checkout counter?

There are thousands of great and public brands that virtually no one is debarred from buying on the grounds of price - yet they possess a value that lesser-known products lack.

For manufacturers, for brand marketers, I don't think the question of why matters very much. It only matters that it is. Fame is the fundamental value that strong brands own.

You do, of course, have to be famous for something: and we come to that later.

The matter of fame takes us naturally to the matter of brand ownership.

Of course, in a legal sense, the company owns the brand. But for a company to feel that it owns its brands is to tempt it to believe that it has total control over them: and it does not.

Forget the marketing-speak. The image of a brand is no more nor less than the result of its fame: its reputation. And like a reputation, it can be found in only one place: in the minds of people.

Lord Archer, Sir Richard Branson, Victoria Beckham, Rudolph Giuliani, Harry Potter and the Prince of Wales are all public figures; and like all public figures, they have reputations. But you will not find these reputations neatly defined and filed away in Companies' House, nor lodged with their respective solicitors. The only way you will find a reputation is by opening up other people's minds and peering inside. The same is true for the image of the brand.

Nor, of course, does a public figure have a single, constant reputation, shared by everyone. One of the most potent political reputations over the last 30 years has been that of Mrs Thatcher. Not only has that reputation changed dramatically over time, but it has never been remotely homogenous.

This very same person, indisputably the same person, at exactly the same point in time, has been seen as both tyrant and liberator: and a thousand variations in between.

Her views, actions and achievements have been known to everyone. The stimuli have been common. But the response to those stimuli has been as varied as the characters of those who have known of her existence. Mrs Thatcher's reputation does not belong to Mrs Thatcher; it belongs to the 50-odd million people in this country who know of her existence - and many more abroad - and it comes in as many different shades.

Tiresome though it may be to accept, the same is true for brands. The most valuable part of a brand... the added value bit... the bit that protects respectable margins and fills up the reservoir of future cash flow... the bit that distinguishes a brand from a mere product... doesn't belong to it. It belongs to its public. And for those who are loyal to brands, this sense of ownership, of possession, is strong and often overtly recognised. It's 30 years or so since I first heard real people in group discussions talking openly and quite unselfconsciously about their favourite washing powder. But they didn't just talk about Persil: they talked about my Persil.

So the image of the brand - its brand reputation - that which makes it the shareholders' most valuable asset - doesn't belong to it. It belongs to all those who give thought to it.

No wonder CEOs prefer to spend their time counting things.

But the fact that the image of the brand doesn't reside with the brand is not quite such a depressing truth as it may seem. Because it leads us to wonder how exactly these images... these brand reputations... are formed in the first place.

Many marketing companies, and even more of their marketing advisors, pride themselves on their ability to build brands. But of course neither group builds brands: because brands are built in people's heads.

What the most skilful of marketing companies do, with great sensitivity and unceasing vigilance, is provide some of the raw material from which brands are built. There is an enormous difference.

Many years ago, I wrote that people build brands as birds build nests, from scraps and straws we chance upon. The metaphor remains a useful one - but it needs to be both modified and amplified.

I said earlier, as one of my 13 unpalatable brand facts, that "people come to conclusions about brands as a result of an uncountable number of different stimuli."

That's true - but we can count some of them. These are some of the scraps and straws from which people build brands.

Let me start with the product. It's often said that a brand is a product with added communication: but it seems to me that the intrinsic product - its delivery, its function - must itself be the primary brand communication. No washing powder which fails to deliver high standards of detergency will survive - however skilfully marketed. No beer that fails to please the taste buds - however great its advertising budget - will survive. Function is the first and permanent requirement for brand success. I shall talk much in this lecture about brand reputation and added value: but let me first echo a warning issued earlier this year by Niall FitzGerald in his Marketing Society annual lecture.

He identified the manufacturer who starts out by being technologically very advanced - and is deservedly very successful. As his market gets more and more competitive, he comes to realise that he needs both product performance and brand character in order to stay ahead. Brilliantly, an image is built for his brand - so that users not only respect it but feel loyal to it as well. He is even more successful.

Then comes the critical stage. He becomes such an enthusiast for the notion of brand personality - and falls so deeply in love with his own - that he comes to believe that competitive product performance is no longer his highest priority. So he neglects to innovate, he neglects to invest in R&D, he stops listening intently for those first faint murmurs of discontent - and, for a month or two, or even a year or two - his success continues and his profits mount.

And then, with savage suddenness, his once healthy brand becomes an invalid: losing share and reputation with precipitate speed.

Because when people discover what's been done, that a once-loved brand has taken its users for granted, those users will be totally and brutally unforgiving. And their desertion will have something of vengeance about it.

I shan't talk much more about function: not because it's of little importance but because it's so self-evidently central to brand success that reiteration of that truth should be unnecessary.

The next most obvious clue to brand character is advertising: often claimed to be the greatest brand builder of them all. I spent over 30 years in advertising; but unless you define advertising in an unusually liberal way, I wouldn't necessarily support that claim. That there has to be some communication between a brand and its public is obvious; but its name, its packaging, its stores if it has any, its vans, its news value can all give people important clues to a brand's character: and in some instances, these non-advertising communications media will be the all-important ones. Today, we are principally concerned with manufacturers' brands, offered for sale in a competitive market place. But let's not forget the great schools, the great newspapers, the great football clubs: all of which not only perfectly fit the definition of brands but help us understand their nature. In few if any instances do brands of this kind owe their power and influence primarily to advertising.

Then price. Price is a wonderfully deceptive item. "Look at me," says price: "I'm a number. So you can compare me to the prices of all my competitors and find out which is best." For a second or two, would-be rational man may feel a surge of hope: at last, the comforting feel of ground beneath the feet.

But of course, as everybody knows, price offers no such universal reassurance. Price is both an objective fact and a stimulus likely to elicit any number of very different subjective responses. The same low price can simultaneously lower the barrier to entry and increase suspicions about quality.

It is only commentators who confuse price with value for money; consumers never do.

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