The ‘on brand’ problem

On Brand

Marketers love to think they’re being “on brand,” but that’s not necessarily always a good thing. Why?

Let’s open up with a story, as good marketers do! In May ’15, I flew from DFW to Toronto for this work deal. I get to the airport in Toronto and the customs line is about 1 hour and 15 minutes long. (** Audible groan **). I’m on this line and in front of me are these two guys who flew into Toronto for a pitch meeting. It seems like they’re in the construction industry. One of these guys has a Microsoft Surface and for the entire 1 hour and 15 minutes, they’re talking about their pitch, the pitch deck, and all that. I almost slit my wrists 19 separate times on this customs line for various reasons, including:

  • Their deck was terrible
  • They used about 19 stock images including a smiling guy with a hammer and wood
  • Repeatedly they said “on brand” as if it meant something but it didn’t

This was a weird time in my life, and not just because I was on a customs line listening to this insanely crappy pitch. (You just know they won this business, too…) My marriage wasn’t necessarily awesome at this moment, and my relationship with my boss was starting to sour. I ended up getting canned about five months later to the day. Fun!

Looking back, I think some of my visceral reaction to this pitch was the repeated usage of “on brand,” which my boss at the time — and her boss, and dozens of others — used incessantly. Here’s the post I initially wrote after that Toronto airport deal. Now we’re going to talk a bit more about being on brand.

What does it mean to be “on brand?”

This one should be fairly obvious. You define what your “brand” is and then everything you produce, be it an ad or an image or a one-sheet, needs to match that brand in terms of look, feel, and tone. If you hit that target, you are now on brand. This is the holy grail for a lot of people who run marketing departments — well, that and “campaigns.” Ironically, “campaigns” are often held up because someone deems them “not on brand.”

This all seems like a good deal — trying to be on brand — so how could it possibly be bad?

On brand problem No. 1: How much does brand matter these days?

Seemingly matters less. Check out this visual:

On Brand But Brand Is Declining

Background and context here. The general idea is this: in most industries, a customer has about 70 options. As a result, they care less about the brand and more about the experience/relationship. Most old-school CMOs and managers would rather set themselves on fire than hear something like this, but understanding this “new world of business” demands that you understand this shift. Many just bury their heads in the sand chasing retirement, and that’s why most marketing is not so great.

On brand problem No. 2: What do you mean by “branding?”

Your “branding” is really “the story you tell about the value of what you sell,” and that’s been backed up by dozens of interviews with billionaire entrepreneurs. You can run around screeching about margins and value plays all day, and many company-builders do, but the reality of your “brand” is “a story that customers understand and move towards.”

The problem with many marketing departments? They view “branding” as “Shift that logo on that PDF by a few centimeters” or “Make that more blue.” That’s not really branding. It’s maybe an element of branding, but it’s not the whole kit and kaboodle. If something isn’t blue enough and you say “That’s not on brand,” all you’re really doing is substituting “the big picture” (where money is made) for “details so I can feel in control of this moment” (where managerial arrogance is made). If your CEO wants you to be driving ROI, ironically you yourself are now not on brand. You’re squarely off-brand, in fact.

On brand problem No. 3: What you mean by it vs. what your customer means by it

As we race around our offices putting out fires and taking meetings, we miss this point. Your customers don’t care about silos, the experience of your leadership, or anything else. (In some niche industries, they might, sure.) Your customers want a good product/service, a good experience, and a good price. That’s pretty much the deal.

So, when a CMO says “on brand,” he/she usually means colors, tone, voice, etc. That’s one definition.

When a customer thinks of “on brand,” they think “This company has good prices, the ads are funny, they respond to me on Facebook, my daughter likes it.”


You see how definition 1 of “on brand” is different than definition 2?

Until you start thinking of what the term means through the eyes of the customers, you’re totally missing the point.

The digital issue of on brand

This was a (small) part of why I got fired from that job above, so I have some experience here. A lot of times, a company has old-school marketing methods like an in-house publication or direct mail. Then, they try to shift to “new” marketing methods like email (whoa!) or “having a digital presence.” (OMG!) Most CMOs barely understand this and the whole thing tanks, but eh.

Old-school peeps used to publishing cycles and the way things look in print get very frustrated with digital. A publications editor can repeatedly tell his/her designers “Move that. Adjust that. Fix that.” In digital, a lot of that is done in code. There may be competing priorities for the people who code. So now the manager is screeching “That’s not on brand!” and you’re like “Well, it just needs a quick iteration, but I have to wait six weeks for that via processes here.” I just described a good portion of the last five years of my life in one paragraph. I’m a very simple person.

Digital needs to look and feel a little bit different than print/conventional IMHO, but most miss that — and when they miss it, the term they use to defend it is “on brand.” (As in, “This is not on brand.”) That seems like a mistake.

This is probably also why I think “omni-channel marketing” is kind of a buzzword.

On brand on the weapons list

Here are a few terms I’ve found over time that should mean one thing and drive business forward — but instead are used as weapons by most managers.

Anything else about being on brand?

Ted Bauer

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