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Don’t Let the Buzz About Brand Experience Cloud Your Brand Idea

Is traditional branding dying? Is the “big brand idea” a relic of our traditional past?

Conventional broadcast advertising (radio, print and television) is useful for verbally and visually communicating brand and product benefits, but in an era of consumer empowerment, top-down messaging—or the passive embrace of manufacturers’ wisdom—is no longer enough. Brands need to build multidimensional connections with consumers by stimulating as many senses as possible.

“Experiential marketing” is one of many buzzwords that have proliferated in recent years. It involves anything from in-store sampling to pop-up stores to the sound emitted when a can of cola is opened. The goal of experiential marketing is to form emotional bonds between consumers and brands that reinforce loyalty. As leader of J. Walter Thompson in Asia, I try to strike a balance between encouraging the embrace of the new and advocating the power of timeless marketing principles. Carefully crafted strategies and executions—adherence to the ABCs of brand building—will remain our lighthouse as we pioneer new ways to introduce brands into consumers’ lives.

Cool kids prefer the modish expression “brand experience” to “brand idea,” deeming the latter too one-dimensional and “advertising-y” relative to the interactivity and holism of the former. I beg to differ.

The term “brand idea” may sound quaint, but it’s not. It implies more than an old-fashioned, static positioning statement. The brand idea is the long-term relationship between a consumer and a brand. It is dynamic and multifaceted. It breathes life into every interaction—or “touch point”—that connects the consumer and the brand. It is the conceptual underpinning of subsequent engagement with a brand that spurs consumers to change behavior in a way that leads to more frequent purchase and higher loyalty.

But a brand idea also is a product of classic, conceptual craftsmanship. Each experience, high- or low-tech, must reinforce a clearly defined proposition that fuses insight into consumer behavior with a unique brand offer.

Some brands have been significantly ahead of the curve in reconciling message clarity with three-dimensional experiences. The Nike+ digital ecosystem leverages technology to infuse “always on” dynamism into consumers’ daily lives. “Just do it” is more than a call to participate in sports. It is an exhortation to push against convention and define oneself independent of society. Nike’s spirit didn’t appear out of thin air or drip from a Twitter feed. It is the exquisitely refined vision of co-founder Phil Knight, and Nike has reinforced this quasi-religious credo at every level and in every corner of the organization for 40 years.

Lego, a brand that has celebrated creativity since 1932, also understands that timeless can be new. The name Lego is derived from the Danish phrase “leg godt,” which also means “I put together” in Latin. Every manifestation of Lego’s brand idea, “inspiring the builders of tomorrow,” strengthens brand equity. The company’s award-winning retail outlets are designed with innovative displays and spaces for family “building” events and kid-friendly exploration areas. At several locations worldwide, Legoland encourages kids to open their imaginations at construction sites that dot the theme parks. To the tune of almost $500 million in global ticket sales, the 2014 film The Lego Movie is, perhaps, the most successful branded entertainment in recent years. The film pulls viewers into a tale inspired by the brand idea.

Google, the ultimate 21st-century power brand, does not really sell many of its own services. From French patisseries in New York to study-abroad programs in Japan, Google brands the services that others sell, largely through its search engine. The brand is unified by experiences that add dimension to Google’s brand idea, “bringing the world together through technology.” This brand idea transcends everything that Google does to create ripples of good feeling. Every piece of information generated by an online search is associated with the warm glow of Google. In the process, the company demonstrates its proprietary tools—airline status information, mapping, Street View and so on. Every technology does this, including Google Glass. The experience of using the product makes the world a smaller place.

Google’s vivid relationship with consumers stands in marked contrast to erstwhile Japanese titans such as Sony, Panasonic and Hitachi. It is probably no coincidence that these brands, now tech also-rans, never had clear brand ideas. Samsung, the Korean behemoth, looks increasingly vulnerable to low-price competition from China. Samsung doesn’t really have a brand idea, either.

As the digital revolution turns the advertising industry on its head, consistency and conceptual craftsmanship have become forgotten imperatives. In our zeal to crack the next big thing, we’re simply latching on to the latest thing without thinking about how it links up to a brand idea. Today, the “bits”—the execution, the tactical side of things—too often overshadow the brands.

Whether high-tech or low-tech, however, beautiful brand ideas provide the gravitational force to forge order from chaos. They ensure that each experience deepens, rather than cheapens, the relationship between consumers and the brands they love.

Tom Doctoroff is CEO of JWT Asia Pacific, and author of Twitter is Not a Strategy, Billions and What Chinese Want.He has worked on marketing efforts including Nike’s launch in China and Ford’s rise to produce more than 1 million vehicles per year in China, and has partnered with multinational clients such as Unilever, Ford, HSBC, Mattel and Microsoft, as well as leading Asian enterprises such as Lenovo, COFCO and the Singapore Tourism Board. Doctoroff is a member of the AMA’s China Advisory Council.

For more from Doctoroff, read “Balancing Technology With Tradition,” available soon in the December 2014 issue of Marketing News.