Matt paints the big picture

By The Drum, Administrator

January 26, 2005 | 10 min read

The whole point of branding is to make a product or a business distinct from its competition. So searching for a single magic brand formula that encompasses all successful brands seems like a bad idea.

In my book Brand Royalty, I focus on 100 of the most successful brands. As soon as I started to research the book the differences between the different brands became astoundingly clear.

Ultimately, brands are successful not because they conform to a neat little set of laws which apply to all brands but because they follow their own individual path with confidence. Successful brands are similar in that they all have a clear vision, but that vision is never the same.

However, as soon as you start to look at successful brands you do realise that there are certain shared characteristics that the best brands have in common.

The tragedy for brands is that the same characteristic which is responsible for the biggest brand successes is also the trait most brand failures have in common; namely, innovation.

Think of the world’s most successful brand, Coca-Cola. Its phenomenal success and current brand value of nearly $80million (according to Interbrand) is due primarily to innovation. When it was invented in the 1880s it was the first product of its kind. Even though the brands chief rival Pepsi arrived only a few years later in 1892, Coca-Cola retains the advantage of being the ‘original’ and, in the words of its most famous strapline “the real thing”.

However, innovation for the sake of innovation almost always leads to disaster. Coca-Cola’s biggest flop of all time was a completely new formula New Coke, launched in the United States in the mid-80s and withdrawn from shelves within months.

The invention of a smokeless brand of cigarettes, by RJ Reynolds, and of mineral water for pets are just two of many examples of how innovation can lead to failure.

Successful innovators become successful brands by understanding the point of their innovations. Here are a few lessons from some of the greatest innovations of all time in order to show how failure can be avoided.

1. The Adidas lesson: Focus on performance

Before Nike was even in the race, Adidas was coming up with such sportswear innovations as spikes for running shoes and studs for soccer boots. By focusing solely on the performance of its products Adidas has managed to keep up with, if not stay ahead of, the field.

Indeed, Adidas was the ultimate sportswear pioneer as the brand’s German founder Adolph ‘Adi’ Dassler single-handedly invented the category when he started making sports shoes in 1920.

2. The Sony lesson: Distrust market research

Sony is associated with innovation. The brand that gave the world the first all-transistor colour TV and the Walkman, has always had a healthy distrust of market research. The Walkman, which was the brainchild of Sony founder Akio Morita, in 1979, would not have happened if market research had been involved. “I do not believe that any amount of market research could have told us that it would have been successful,” said Morita, “The public does not know what is possible. We do.” Morita was echoing Henry Ford’s sentiments on his Model T car when Ford said, “If I’d have asked the customer, he’d have asked for a faster house.”

3. The Toyota lesson: Get a mission

In 2003, Toyota overtook Ford to become the second most visible carmaker on the planet (behind only General Motors in terms of sales volume). The Japanese car giant now has 11 per cent of the world car market. Part of this success is down to revamping old models like the Corolla and careful advertising aimed at the younger market. However, these are merely symptoms of a more fundamental shift from being a follow-the-world kind of company, to becoming something of an industry pioneer. It now has a broader mission, reflected by its commitment to the environment with its eco-friendly ‘hybrid’ cars. Toyota now comes across as a company trying to change the way we drive, with radical models such as the self-parking Prius. Like all great innovators, Toyota has its eye on the future and could yet become the market leader. Watch this (parking) space.

4. The Hoover lesson: Invent the category

Hoover is not only a household name, it’s also a household verb. “Could you hoover the carpet?” is a phrase that inspires lethargic grunts almost anywhere in the English-speaking world.

By inventing the vacuum cleaner category, and by improving on what had gone before, Hoover rose to become one of the most recognised brands throughout the twentieth century. (Although it now faces tough competition from another successful innovator, James Dyson.) Hoover provides one of the best lessons in brand history. That is, if you offer something completely new it will only work if people see the benefits.

5. The Mercedes-Benz lesson: Prepare the market

In January 1886 the German engineer Karl Benz patented the world’s first automobile. Benz’s legacy lives on today with recent innovations such as electro-hydraulic brakes and ‘sensotronic’ control systems.

When the short but spacey Mercedes A-Class emerged it represented a new type of car and looked so different the company started running ads across Europe months before it launched just to get people used to the car. It worked. Another potential failure was transformed into success all over Europe thanks to a careful advertising strategy.

6. The Kellogg’s lesson: Show them the money

When Kellogg’s invented the breakfast cereal, it needed to work hard if it was going to wean the world off bacon and eggs. Kellogg’s was the right brand to show that innovation and advertising must work together. Indeed, in the early twentieth century the brand was the most ambitious advertiser the planet had ever known, with an advertising budget of $1million. That year, it created the world’s largest sign advertising Corn Flakes and whacking it in the middle of New York’s Times Square, thus heralding the age of the branded landscape, or brandscape.

7. The Pepsi lesson: Differentiate or die

Pepsi is an innovative brand, despite the fact that Coca-Cola had already invented its product. Pepsi shows that innovation doesn’t end with invention. Its innovative advertising campaigns, such as its groundbreaking use of celebrity endorsement in the 1980s (including its global premiere of Madonna’s controversial “Like a Prayer” video), continue today, and serve to differentiate its identity from that of the market leader. While Coca-Cola conjures words such as ‘classic’, ‘original’, ‘always’ and ‘real’, the Pepsi generation is about being young and fresh and fun. When Pepsi draws on history it does so with its tongue firmly in its cheek. (Think of those ads with Britney, Beyoncé, Pink and Enrique Iglesias in a gladiatorial arena, for instance.) It may be 112 years’ old, but Pepsi is still down with the kids.

8. The Wrigley’s lesson: If it’s new, give it away

William Wrigley is the great unsung hero of branding. In my own opinion, he is the father of modern marketing and the founder of many innovative techniques that still work well today. He initiated abstract advertising in 1911 (the best part of a century before Saatchi and Saatchi’s Silk Cut campaigns) with his ads of a beautiful woman above the line “The Girl with the Wrigley Eyes”.

When other advertisers cut back their spending due to a recession, Wrigley increased it, realising it would be easier to be everywhere. However, the most innovative marketing ploy used by the chewing gum chief was his use of freebies. In 1915 he sent free samples of spearmint gum to every single one of the 1.5million Americans listed in the national telephone directory. That same year he re-wrote the Mother Goose rhymes to include mentions of his brand and gave 14million copies away for free. Wrigley’s status as the best-selling chewing gum was assured, and what should have been a brand failure became the opposite.

9. The Gillette lesson: Stay focused

Gillette invented the safety razor over 100 years ago. Anyone could forgive the brand if it started to get itchy feet, but it hasn’t so far. Indeed, Gillette’s business and marketing strategy has remained incredibly focused. Every brand extension has made sense.

The launch of shave foams and shave gels compliment and help boost sales of innovative products such as Mach 3. Even its testosterone-charged advertising has stayed consistent. As I write in Brand Royalty, “when advertising to men, Gillette has always promoted the masculine values of its brand. Gillette razors aren’t just for men. They define men. In Gillette adverts we are heroes, fathers, lovers, and smile rugged grins above a soft-rock soundtrack. ‘The best a man can get’ is the slogan, signifying quality and masculinity in six words.” Gillette has stayed innovative but it has kept is innovations focused on what it does best.

10. The Kleenex lesson: Adapt to the market

The Kleenex tissue began life as a make-up remover. Then parent company Kimberley-Clark started to get inundated with letters from customers saying they used them for colds. As a result, they scrapped their ads aimed at the beauty market and launched a new campaign for “the handkerchiefs you can throw away”. Ever since those 1930s ads, Kimberley-Clark cites “customer insight” as the main factor behind Kleenex’s success.

So, there you have it. The key to successful products and successful brands is simple. Innovation, innovation, innovation (as Tony Blair once nearly said).

Innovative advertising that responds to the nature of the product and the subtleties of the market is essential to avoid failure.

If you are promoting a product that isn’t new in itself, then innovative advertising is necessary to set it apart. There are many brands which weren’t necessarily the first to do something, who owe their fresh identities to the image created by ad agencies. Pepsi is the most obvious example, but there are many others (Timex, Heineken, Danone, Evian and so on). In order to make a product in a crowded market stand out, innovation isn’t just desirable, it’s an absolute necessity.

One hundred years ago the burden of innovation rested solely with the product. Today, it knocks on the door of the advertising agencies. And as the contemporary brandscape gets ever more cluttered, innovative advertising and marketing becomes increasingly more important. The sheepish brands that follow the crowd with samey products and lacklustre advertising are inevitably going to be bleating their messages into the wilderness.

The marketing guru Peter Drucker once pointed out, “business only has two functions – marketing and innovation”. This is indeed true, but these functions are not as separated as he imagined. In fact, innovative marketing is the single function behind every great brand.


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