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Mark Ritson: The battle for

brandings soul is on
Marketing Weeks Top 100 ranking of companies that exhibit brand purpose
is currently the most read article on our website. Rightly so; its a fine
article about a key topic for marketers.
By Mark Ritson on 21 Oct 2015

And yet I find myself rather conflicted. Not about the Marketing Week article
itself, but the overall pursuit of brand purpose. Half of me enjoys the
emotional, high end, organisation-wide concept of purpose and the way it
elevates branding to a more significant, worthy place. The other part of me
smells bullshit and hankers for a simpler, more direct approach to branding.
My turmoil is appropriate. Marketing, and specifically the pivotal challenge of
positioning and brand building, has never been more bifurcated and
contested. The warring factions on either side of the positioning debate even
have captains to spur their respective sides. One is called Jim. The other is
called Byron.
Jim Stengel is one of the most decorated marketers alive. As the global
marketing officer at P&G he was literally the most important branding person
at the most important branding company in the World. Since stepping down,
Stengel has become the go-to advocate for brand purpose which he defines
as a life-improving ideal. He argues passionately in his book Grow that
brand purpose, or brand ideals as he terms the concept, not only
represents the right thing to do but also provide the best route to corporate
growth.

Professor Byron Sharp is monstrously clever. He has turned the EhrenbergBass Institute into one of the most important centres for brand strategy in
the world. His client list is a whos-who of consumer brands not bad for a
Kiwi based in Adelaide. His book How Brands Grow is the first book in a
decade to say anything new about brand strategy.
Both men make massive, discipline shredding claims. They just both happen
to be making them at the same time and in direct, unequivocal contradiction
of each other. Jim believes in the kind of differentiation that exits at the top
of the top of the benefit ladder and sees this differentiation as the core of
everything. Byron believes differentiation is all but impossible and challenges
marketers to lower their expectations and aim at the more realistic and more
valuable objective of brand distinctiveness. Byron exhorts a brand to target
everyone, make it available everywhere and ensure that the distinctive
assets that visually represent the brand are emphasised at every turn. Jim
asks
a
brand
to
think
big,
to
align

around an ideal and then communicate that vision to consumers.


If marketing was recast as Shakespeares The Tempest, Jim would play Ariel
to Byrons Caliban. One looks to the clouds and dreams of poetic justice, the
other lowers his gaze to the aisle and the pragmatic business of buying stuff.
Jim Stengel (assuming the role of Ariel in Shakespeares The Tempest): I drink the air
before me, and return

Byron Sharp
(assuming the role of Caliban in the same ) : The clouds methought would open, and
show riches
One might expect these contradictory marketing theories to attract two
distinct sets of clients two tribes that adhere to their respective approach
and who vilify the other side. Not true. What makes this whole debate even
more fascinating is the battle for the soul of branding is not inter-corporation,
but rather intra-corporation. The companies that cite the importance of
brand purpose and which Marketing Week rated as the most purposeful big
players like Unilever,Coca-cola, AB Inbev and P&G are also those actively
working with Sharps Ehrenberg-Bass Institute on the more pragmatic, low
involvement challenge of brand distinctiveness.
More than a dozen times over the past five years I have met a bemused
marketer from a blue-chip consumer goods company who has asked me to
resolve the strategic schizophrenia that they are forced to endure. They want
to target segments, differentiate their brand and build brand equity while at
the same time facing a corporate led, Byron-spired mission to eschew all of
that because it is proven not to work. What should they do?
I have no answer for them. I love Byrons aggression and use of scientific
rhetoric but think half his book nonsense and the other half genius. I adore
Jim and his company-wide vision of brand positioning but conclude that BP,
Lloyds and VWs presence on Marketing Weeks list of the most purpose
driven brands provides clear evidence that it is all nonsense.
Like Prospero before me I believe in both and the servant of neither and find
myself in the somewhat uncomfortable position of being in the middle. Thats
a first.

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