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IPA Excellence Diploma / Deep Dive 1: What is a Brand?

by Contagious Team

Delegates from the IPA's Excellence Diploma explore the future of brands with top thinkers, planners and consultants including Mark Earls, Paul Feldwick, and John Grant

What exactly is a brand? What, if anything, is the purpose of brands in society? And in an age of on-demand marketing, are brands set to wither and die, or to thrive? Exploring those provocative subjects, Contagious arrived on a bright Monday morning earlier this month with more than a dozen fellow delegates from a range of London agencies to participate in the IPA Excellence Diploma's first deep dive session on the nature and future of brands. 

The Excellence Diploma, launched in 2005, is a year-long course run by the IPA and has been dubbed the MBA of brands. Notable alumni include the likes of Faris Yakob, John Willshire and Alex Dunsdon. Run by BBH's group strategy director Nick Kendall and PHD planning director David Wilding, it aims to give senior agency thinkers (and, in this case, a magazine editor), a thorough grounding in what brands are, why they're important to business, and what makes a great brand.

Preceding the event, delegates had been given a daunting reading list spanning the case law of brand history and theory, and the key texts on cultural, technological and brand developments that have shaped the industry over the last century and beyond.

Aptly held at the Museum Of Brands, the two-day event, expertly hosted and organised by Fallon, London's chief strategy officer David Hackworthy, and acclaimed author and Ogilvy's former executive planning director Mark Earls (of Herd and I'll Have What She's Having fame), saw a series of thought-provoking talks from branding luminaries. 

Interspersed among working sessions and discussions were presentations from BMB, London strategy partner David BainDove global VP of brand, Fernando MachadoThe Guardian columnist Zoe WilliamsSt Luke's founder turned author John Grant, former BBH group development director Charles Garland, now CEO of Simon Cowell's SiCo Entertainment among many others. 

Here are some highlights from a packed two days of big thinking about brands: 

Defining B'nard /

Hackworthy and Earls opened with a session on the slippery word itself. From brand equity to brand onion, brand truths to brand loyalty, delegates from across the agency spectrum discussed the many and blurred definitions and, inevitably, misappropriations of the word brand. It had become unhelpful and jargony, most agreed, 'bollocks' to anyone outside marketing, and yet so frustratingly undefined that it confused conversations between agencies, clients and researchers. Earls comically suggested a remedy: delegates should mentally replace the word brand with B'nard to remind them not to abuse it.

'Pleasurable fictions based on errors' /

Following them, David Bain contented that most brand talk is naïve, inaccurate, dishonest or just plain wrong. Brands are simply a business idea, he argued, a tactic to help companies charge 'too much' for stuff. 'Brands are pleasurable fictions based on errors (not mistakes), of judgement,' he argued, essentially exploiting what Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman called system one errors. Bain then listed a host of these behavioural economics 'errors' used by marketers: social proof, mere exposure effects, confirmation bias and halo effects. 

People are far more sophisticated that marketers give them credit for, argued Bain. He argued that brands should therefore collude with their audience, creating a pleasurable fantasy of which both parties were well aware. His example was work for McCain, which created a whimsical cartoon version of the chip brand's farm and factory.

Fade into obscurity /

Might brands disappear entirely then? Trend forecasting and behavioural agency Canvas8's Oli Chubb then showed how seamless service from the likes of McDonalds in France, a shift to subtle branding in Starbucks' retail spaces and the rise of Etsy and the Maker Movement might herald the end of brands as they slowly made themselves more invisible.

If consumerism is the currency of our culture, what happens when you're broke?/

Moving from technology and trend forecasting to the ethics of brands, The Guardian columnist Zoe Williams, argued that brands have become inextricably linked to lifestyle and identity. Brands have become a currency of our culture, and define individuals. 

But what happens, she asked, when people can't afford to buy that currency? Where once people produced things and had an identity around that, now identity was bought and worn, resulting in alienation for those who couldn't buy in.

Companies, she argued, needed to stop pretending that we could consume endlessly and that identity could be bought. The antidote would be brands which were honest, she argued, which would 'obliterate' the fantasy of current marketing.

Star-studded brands /

Suitably concerned about the future of brands, day two saw a brighter outlook for brands, with an opening morning chat from Charles Garland, CEO of Simon Cowell's business, SiCo Entertainment, and former group development director at BBH, London.

Garland left the ad industry to graft some of the experience of creating and nurturing loyalty onto the world of entertainment. His epiphany had been Simon Fuller's creation of the Spice Girls, centred on a strong idea: Girl Power. These big ideas, he argued travel both across countries, but also across boundaries and sectors. He cited David and Victoria Beckham, for example, whose brand took them into fashion, perfume, new teams and countries.

Technology played a vital role these days in fostering loyalty, said Garland. Partnerships with AmazonYahoo!, and Netflix, for example could gather and harness data to bring fans closer to their entertainment idols, and build a direct relationship. 

But brands have been poor at harnessing the allure of celebrities and talent. Too often one-way, cynical and short termist, what singled out the very best brand partnerships was long-term, symbiotic relationships: Garland cited Nike and Michael Jordan as a hugely successful example.

Make with, not made by /

Emerging markets are set to overtake developed ones in terms of importance for revenues, and multi-nationals are increasingly looking eastwards as an influential region to drive growth. Timely then, St Luke's co-founder and latterly author and consultant John Grant, who spoke to delegates about these important new markets, their cultural perceptions of brand, authorship, individualism and collaboration. 

The historical western mythology of the individual hero (epitomised by the cowboy), simply didn't apply to these markets. Granted cited the hero worship of figures such as Steve Jobs and Coco Chanel, and how that had been expressed in brand advertising personified by the hero: be that the Marlboro man, or the Green Giant.

By contrast, that history and those values simply didn't apply to these new markets. These new markets, argued Grant, distrusted the ego, the icon, authorship. Their brands and creative impulses were built on notions of 'with' not 'by'. Compared to Western values, these so-called Interland (countries like Turkey and Iran that sit between western and eastern values) brands focused on inclusiveness, not distinction, self not ego, and commitment, not irony.

Sketches with purpose /

Purpose and the responsibility of business to society has been a huge topic in the industry, something Dove's global VP of brand Fernando Machado then outlined in a passionate presentation to delegates. 

Using the blockbuster success of the brand's Sketches campaign as an example, Machado outlined how a sense of purpose had driven an extraordinary culture of experimentation and rule-breaking within the marketing department: that included an iterative approach with A/B testing, supporting earned with owned media in real time, and creating an impromptu social media war room to monitor the film's spread. This work helped lift the film to billions of earned media impressions and becoming the most viewed piece of online branded content. 'It makes you feel like you're doing something more than selling something,' he said. 

Pens at the ready /

Brains crammed with thought-provoking theories after two long days, delegates left the Museum to digest proceedings and prepare for their first essay assignment: a 2,000 word essay on the future of brands.

Next up delegates will be put through their paces on what value brands add to business, overseen by the considerable brains of former BMP (now DDB) strategic planner turned consultant and author Peter Field and Daryl Fielding, director of brand marketing at Vodafone.

Disclosure: Contagious' editor Ed White is a paying delegate of the IPA Excellence Diploma. 
For more information on the IPA Excellence Diploma, click here: