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The Marcus Perspective

BRANDING WITH A COLD IRON: Living (Or Dying) With Fad Words

By Bruce W. Marcus

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Fad words, in professional services marketing, have a tendency to wear out and disappear after awhile, which seems to testify to their shallowness. They are then replaced by other fad words, which themselves ultimately wear out.

The words image ó and its apparent replacement, branding ó come to mind. (And donít forget niche marketing, which tried to add a measure of enthusiasm to the old standard, market segmentation.) Image was first introduced into the marketing vocabulary by the late public relations genius, Ed Bernays, who is often referred to as the father of modern public relations. It was meant to imply a perception of a company, its products, its services, and its reputation.

But at the same time, it implied that if you donít like the way your company is perceived, you can change that perception by manipulating symbols.

Well, it ainít true. You canít.

Why? Because the acoustics of the marketplace are magnificent. And as the old Ralph Waldo Emerson saying goes, what you are speaks so loud that I canít hear what you say you are.

In other words, if you donít like the way youíre perceived change what you are. Then your communications efforts put you where you belong ó in the realm of truth.

We donít hear the word image so much anymore, which is a blessing. Now the ubiquitous word is branding.

Now there is a word that describes a new fad. It seems, as well, to have replaced image. Itís also a classic fad word, in that its original meaning has been so corrupted by the clichť curse that its original meaning has been submerged in a bath of hogwash.

Branding is now shorthand for a bunch of other, real concepts, such as reputation, expectations and attitudes Ė everything, it seems, except what branding really is. (Why, I wonder, did professional services marketing go for several decades before it was brought into the professional services marketing mix?)

A brand, itís commonly accepted, is a promise. Itís a promise of quality, but, as well, of consistency You know that the next tube of your favorite brand of toothpaste will be the same as the last. Can one say that of legal or accounting services or the performance of lawyers and accountants?

A professional firm may have a name that many people recognize It may have a reputation for managing its clientele effectively and efficiently, and meeting its expectations, with intelligence, skill and integrity. It may even have the consistency of visual recognition of its graphics, as do product brands. But these virtues hardly qualify for the traditional title of brand. Certainly, if a firm advertises as much as Coca-Cola or Dell, its graphics will readily identify a professional firm. But it doesnít guarantee that the next matter the law firm handles for you will have the same outcome as the last one, or that the next tax opinion will be as good as the last one.

Why, it is to wonder, is branding a law or accounting firm so popular?

Possibly because accountants and lawyers, generally unsophisticated in marketing practices or skills, are easily persuaded by marketers to accept the concept, sometimes in lieu of sound basic marketing practices. Sometimes, the brand merchants, such as the graphics people and branding consultants, sell the concept. But rarely does it prove out. Reputation, yes. It can be professionally fostered, as can name recognition. But as a distinguishing factor in a competitive environment? No. True branding for professional services is a bust.

Oh, and so too is a new variation on branding, called personal branding, in which reputation, well earned or not, is enhanced.

Why, we wonder, do some otherwise good marketers now sometimes talk of branding? The answer lies, I think, in the old story of the man who came back from another small and dreary village. When his neighbors asked him what it was like, he embellished the description so artfully, and described the village so glowingly, that he had to go back and see this wonderful place with his own eyes. And thus have the branding merchants succeeded in convincing their peers of the wonders of branding ó that the myth was real.

Well then. Why the fuss about an inflated and shallow concept?

Because the pursuit of a brand too often means a distraction from the sound practices of marketing that really do work.

Thereís an old vaudeville joke. ďI saw a sign in a restaurant that said, ĎWatch your hat and coat.í But while I was watching my hat and coat, somebody stole my soup.Ē

And so it is with branding, as it is with all fad words. They are distractions from the real work of marketing. Until the next fad, with its high-sounding words, come into vogue. Watch your soup.

Bruce W. Marcus is a Connecticut-based consultant in marketing and strategic planning for professional firms, the editor of THE MARCUS LETTER ON PROFESSIONAL SERVICES MARKETING, ( „ Bruce W. Marcus. All rights reserved.


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