I read a short interview not long ago with a bloke called David C. Baker. He runs a marketing consulting business out of Nashville, ReCourses, and has, at least to my ear, some pretty fresh things to say about how marketing firms should operate.
As a copywriter at WordsFresh, I tend to look out for interesting and even contrarian takes on marketing and strategy in relation to cultural trends. In fact, I only discovered Baker because of my Google search for “the death of branding.” The whole notion of branding had been sticking in my craw for some time. I felt like it was slowly dying as a buzzword and at least showing signs of its age as an unassailably viable marketing concept. And I was OK with that.
Indeed, a satisfying little shudder ran through me when I saw a cartoon in this month’s The New Yorker.
Branding, right there next to bacon. I love bacon, to be sure, when it’s produced with quality and pride, but bacon got out of control. I don’t love branding, per se, but I think it can (and should) be done well. I daresay that it, too, got out of control. At some point, branding, branding, branding was suddenly everywhere, like bacon, in copious quantity––quality be damned.
Which brings me back to Mr. Baker. He was able to put a fine point on what I’d been wrestling with––that branding is often just used as an excuse for marketing agencies to play around and be “creative.” To most agencies, argues Baker,
…clients are like patrons of the arts, kindly paying for what the firm wants to do because the firm can’t make a living selling pure creativity without tying it to business needs. If they could figure out a way to make money without clients, they’d jump at the chance.
Which, in turn, brings me back to my life as a Louisville copywriter. Do I come to work at WordsFresh because it fulfills my deepest creative urges? No.
Is marketing art? Not really. (I’m not going to pull some 100-level philosophizing on you, but suffice it to say that the intention’s not there, blah, blah, blah––tweet me @malq if you want to get into it.)
Is marketing craft? Of course. I come to WordsFresh to ply my craft for our clients, to apply what expertise I have as a thinker and copywriter. Baker says that for many “creative” firms “variety is more important than deep expertise that benefits the client.” Agreed.
And then he launches into a particularly inspired riff:
Branding is what a farmer does when all the cows look alike and he needs to know which ones need shots, are pregnant, or need to be slaughtered. So that’s what most marketing firms do; they wrestle the “client” to the ground and “brand” them. It hurts like hell, it smells, the client cries a little inside, and the client is forever changed.
But nothing changes about the company. Branding, to the marketing firm, is merely an attempt to move upstream and have more influence, make more money, and fatten the portfolio but in the process––and here, indeed, this is the saddest thing of all––the marketing firm misses the whole point.
This reminded me of the way I had started to think about brands—which is that, in literal terms, a brand is just an external stamp used to identify and differentiate an entity, be it cow or cola company, to the outside viewer. In marketing, good branding is said to capture the essence, personality, innate values and emotional qualities of a service or product. But does a canister of air freshener or a chain of transmission repair shops have essence, personality, innate value, emotional weight? Kinda? Maybe? Or are branders just grafting on these touchy-feely components, finagling, retrofitting, shoehorning in some emotional resonance?
For me, most of it comes down to what Hemingway called his “bullshit detector.” As someone who recently completed his MFA in fiction up in Brooklyn, I have a deep and abiding love for the art of storytelling. But like branding, “storytelling” has become de rigueur as a marketing tactic—it sounds so artistic, so human—and, as such, it tends employed ad absurdum. As Baker points out, “storytelling is just like branding; there are a few people actually doing it right and the rest are just getting on the next bus.”
But just like bacon, just like branding, “storytelling has a place.” Baker says “it brings context and transparency to branding” and “involves the company’s employees in less gratuitous ways.” I know what he means. We crave good stories. We like things to be humanized and real.
Of course, devotees of branding and branded storytelling will say they can and should be applied robustly to every client. Perhaps, but you’d better do it right. Increasingly, in our granular (another word inching toward the graveyard?) world, in our evermore bespoke-minded, meta-maniacal, info-savvy, über-snarky, BS-detecting digital cluster headache of a world, people can smell the marketing cow dung.
As Baker wisely proclaims, “None of it matters unless you are telling the truth.”
Huh. Maybe it is art, after all.