There seems to be a struggle among the good citizens of the marketing profession over what to do about the concept of “brand.” Indeed, some of the argument focuses on the word “brand” itself. Has the word lost its oomph? Does the goal of building a strong brand no longer jazz up the troops? Industry types are weighing in on the issue, and books are popping up to present their perspective on what to do about “branding the brand concept.” Two years ago, Matthew Ragas and Bolivar Bueno launched the term “cult branding” in a book (The Power of Cult Branding) that was actually pretty good. Now Kevin Roberts, chief executive officer worldwide for Saatchi and Saatchi, has taken his stab at defining “the future beyond brands” in a book called Lovemarks.
Roberts’ thesis is straightforward: Consumers are onto the traditional brand concept and discount it, so the old branding tricks of 20 years ago will no longer fly. Marketers have to aspire to a higher level of consumer commitment. For Roberts, this can only be achieved by a brand that communicates the irrational love some consumers have for certain products–an emotional connection described as a “lovemark.”
Lovemark? Please. All this agonizing over what to call brands in the twenty-first century is a waste of time. If the brands today have become institutionalized, if the “brand manual” restricts rather than supports brand building, if the word “brand” is “overused, sterile and unimaginative,” as The Walt Disney Co. (nyse: DIS – news – people ) chief executive Michael Eisner said (as quoted by Roberts), then that is a condemnation of brand management, not the basic phenomenon of brand connecting to consumers. Our job as marketers is to create the brand that inspires “loyalty beyond reason” as Roberts puts it so well. Whether that successful outcome is labeled a cult brand or a lovemark should make no difference as long as the consumer responds the right way.
Roberts is in the business of making words sing, so I understand why he has gotten so excited about this lovemark concept. And he has clearly begun to communicate that enthusiasm to his clients, because the book is peppered with quotes from luminaries at Proctor and Gamble (nyse: PG – news – people ), Yahoo! (nasdaq: YHOO – news – people ) and Kodak (nyse: EK – news – people ), among others. My very first boss at American Express (nyse: AXP – news – people ) almost 20 years ago instilled in me the belief that words have power, and that how you phrase something matters. However: You can spend a whole lot of time and energy gilding the lily or repainting a car, but if the lily is wilted and the car is a jalopy you won’t get far. Rather than fuss over outward appearances, let’s get that hood open and fix the brand-management engine.
On a more mundane level, I have problems with how Roberts went about packaging his thesis. Lovemarks is a brilliant visual confection that would star on any coffee table, but as a business book it lacks coherence. Among the distracting elements that got in the way of the message:
The layout artist was given carte blanche (a common problem with much agency work). Multiple pages have dark text on dark backgrounds that make the text unreadable. Other pages have warring fonts that distract and tire the eye.
My copy of the book came with a companion CD of inspirational rock/pop music standards that complement the various chapter themes. If Lovemarks were an advertising campaign selling Saatchi and Saatchi, I could understand the glitz the CD adds. For a business book with serious aspirations, it seemed superfluous.
There was an environmental tie-in with something called a “white-emitting diode,” which was never fully explained anywhere in the book or on the cute plastic card that came on the package’s ribbon. Maybe the explanation was there, but I never found it amongst the artistic clutter.
In addition, while Roberts proclaims the ascendancy of the customer in future brand-building, clearly he never stopped to consider the needs of the audience for this book. Who are we, after all? We are the marketing executives who need to build brands to the point where they inspire “loyalty beyond reason.” We are the managers who need to find active, creative agencies to help us do the building. In short, we are the current and potential customer base for Roberts. Why, then, does he expend so much energy disrespecting us? To quote just the most remarkable of his remarks: “The most curious people in business ought to be marketers. Eager to learn, fascinated by the strange passions of human beings, always asking questions, always in pursuit of the strange, the unusual, or the simply interesting. Most marketers…are not like this at all.” Gee, thanks.
My overall impression is that Roberts wrote or dictated this book on the fly. Aside from the rather cavalier remarks about marketers noted above, the narrative is not cohesive, he doesn’t bother to support sweeping generalizations with facts (do generals truly not study past battles to learn from troop deployments?) and in spots he is plain inaccurate: Trench Art is from the first World War, not the second, the amusement park is named Six Flags, not Seven Flags, and a photo of the Statue of Liberty is reversed.
In the end, after struggling through all 214 pages, it dawned on me that there is nothing new here. All the advice has been given before, in much better-written books. All Roberts has done is ratchet up the hyperbole in the hopes that his voice will rise above the others. My advice: Let his voice rise above all others and drift away on the wind while we get on with the search for a few good mechanics to help us fine-tune our marketing engines.