Rebranding? Plan to advertise? Rethink.

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It is hard to think of a high tech firm whose reputation suffered more than Nortel in the last three years and remains in business. Fortunately the category seems to be on the mend and the survivors – Nortel included – have started rebuilding.

Renewal won’t be easy or fast. It will take time to rebuild trust with stakeholders who have lost money and faith in the market. Reconnecting with them requires different thinking: packaging new messages in meaningful content and nurturing a community will create deep and quality perceptions of these brands.

Yet, just when Nortel needs to demonstrate it learned a lesson from its precipitous fall, the company is reverting to an old, shallow marketing tactic. Nortel expects a traditional advertising campaign will be sufficient to inform people of its renewed confidence.

What got high tech firms into trouble in the first place was their mistaken belief that creating an image was the goal, and once they got their image into the public’s mind they’d automatically see an increase in sales and customer loyalty. Near disaster should have humbled Nortel and broadened their marketing mindset; instead we see the old high-tech-hubris remains.

Its continued faith in advertising as the tool that will resurrect its brand demonstrates only that Nortel remains a company in trouble.

Traditional advertising long-ago ceased to be capable of building (or rebuilding) a brand, an argument that ties three authors together: Sergio Zyman’s The End of Advertising as we Know It, Al and Laura Ries’s The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR, and Joe Cappo’s The Future of Advertising. Like characters walking the streets with a placard proclaiming “the end is near,” this trio prophesizes an apocalypse for advertising firms, and those who follow their limited world view.

Zyman and Ries zealously believe advertising has lost its credibility. Widely-viewed as the self-serving tactic of a company anxious to make a sale, and ignored by skeptical consumers who have “trained” themselves to avoid its messages, advertising has little power to put a new brand into the mind. Ries is particularly vitriolic about the increasingly homogenized and interchangeable nature of advertising. All attention and no message, he contends, have embroiled agencies in a battle of advertisements rather than a battle of products. Zyman agrees it has become an art form lacking functionality and, consequently, simply not worth what it costs.

There is, of course, a role for traditional advertising tactics, but its value is in defending a brand, reaffirming the core values that have been built and embedded by other means. After three years of staggering losses, Nortel has nothing left to defend. As a disgraced brand it must be rebuilt from the ground up using a variety of tools and tactics. Now isn’t the time for advertising.

Zyman and Cappo, too, find common ground in their belief that there is no longer a single solution to advertising. Because advertising agencies no longer rely on media commissions as their sole source of revenues so there is no reason not to embrace whatever tactic it takes to build brands and sell products. In fact their true nature encompasses communication of all kinds; it seems counterintuitive that agency work be limited to advertising. Practitioners should have a broader array of tools at their disposal to fashion a successful marketing campaign including sponsorships, publicity, knowledge products, customer service, and employee relations. So, why don’t they? Cappo offers a solution.

The old machine agencies created in the 1950s is being updated, reshaped through consolidation and the acquisition of nontraditional advertising businesses – PR firms, sales promotion companies, web developers, direct-marketing firms, design and corporate identity companies are joining the fold. But no one, it seems, can decide whether the new machine want to be an “advertiser” or a “marketing consultant.” In the midst of this identity crisis, confusion abounds: the old guard sniffs at alternative forms of marketing while their organizations debate how these various functions should be interlinked to create a multi-dimensional branding house.

Cappo clearly rejects the zealous Zyman and Ries attacks on the value of traditional advertising, but he does recognize that agencies will only survive if they can skillfully integrate the upstart marketing disciplines they’ve acquired and direct cohesive and coordinated marketing program for their clients.

Divining brand meaning is one thing; delivering on brand promise is another. Because a predictable, single advertising path no longer exists, Cappo insists agencies must demonstrate that their claims to provide “Media Neutral” brand strategies offer more than lip service.

Effective brand delivery requires agencies to enshrine “strategic brand architecting” as their number one offering: creating comprehensive marketing strategies for clients starting right at the beginning by determining client needs then planning how to meet those needs by whatever functions are necessary. Cappo’s strategic brand architect produces a blueprint, then, acting as a kind of general contractor, coordinates the various marketing elements so they work cohesively. Knowing how all the elements of the brand should work together, the contractor then hires all the necessary subcontractors (designers, sales promotion companies, pr specialist…or ad agencies). This “marketing mastermind,” Cappo tells us, will have an increasingly important place in the newly defined advertising world.

But his view of integration has been slow to take off because agencies are too absorbed by their tactical biases. Lacking the generalist discipline they find it hard to consider how a marketing blueprint that doesn’t include advertising will advance their fortunes and, consequently, they balk at developing non-advertising plans.

Agencies have thus defined their contribution too narrowly, as a creative product instead of a marketing strategy capable of building a long-term brand position. As marketing strategy is gradually determined by those willing to be the “mastermind,” agencies that refuse to reinvent themselves will be relegated to the minor tactical role of providing design support.

Obsolete mindsets that can’t adapt to change brings to mind George Dangerfield’s classic story about the demise of Britain’s Liberal Party ( The Strange Death of Liberal England, 1935). In it, Dangerfield penned a remarkable epitaph for any organization unwilling to reevaluate its brand: “they did not realize that life consists in change, that nothing can stand still, that today’s shrines are only fit for tomorrow’s cattle. Clinging to the realities of the past, they prepared to defend their dead cause to the finish.”

Will this be Nortel’s epitaph? In the end it doesn’t matter whether Nortel itself, or its ad agency, is to blame for its one-dimensional view of branding. If the company is to successfully renew itself it must find a host of alternative and meaningful ways to persuade the public about its rejuvenated promise. Traditional advertising isn’t going to work.

(Originally posted in Knowledge Marketing Watch, 6 October 2003)

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