I spent the first 26 years of my career working for advertising agencies that had made their reputations serving brands with “branded advertising.” In that world, time was measured with a pre- and post-measurement yardstick of six months to a year. A large enough increment of time was set aside to see whether consumers would respond to the messages we were introducing into the marketplace.
Four years ago, I was asked by Zimmerman Advertising to join their team. The agency was very skilled at helping companies find their retail way, and wanted to offer them more than just retail solutions to their problems. Brandtailing™ was (and is) the agency’s secret sauce whose formula reads “building brands over time, and retail sales overnight.” Unlike my prior experiences, six months would no longer be a valid yardstick…maybe six days tops. More on that later.
My job, as well as others on the team, would be to help balance that delicate brand/retailing equation; to make sure both sides of the marketing house were appropriately represented at the table when we crafted solutions for our clients.
In the four short years since I arrived, the advertising landscape has changed in ways I suspect nobody ever thought it would. In a depressed, extended recessionary economy, brands that had taken the long view—with an event horizon of years, suddenly found themselves struggling to survive. Retail sales–the ground zero of where a brand lives became the front lines—and brands of every shape and size have had to either recalibrate their thinking on retail, or face eminent extinction. If a brand couldn’t meet its weekly goals, it wouldn’t make its monthly goals. And if didn’t make its month, it wouldn’t make its quarter. And how many quarters would it take before a company would collapse?
The new rules for a bad economy: In a torrential economic flood, you first shore up the retail levees before you start building a concrete dam. In advertising parlance, you have to make sure you’re surviving the vicissitude of a weekly sales cycle before you start focusing on what your high altitude brand message is to consumers.
But is it an all or nothing proposition?
It depends on who you ask. For far too long, traditional marketing split the role of brand and retail. Big Madison Avenue shops handled a brand, while Tier II ad agencies took on the job of activating those high level thoughts into actionable advertising. It is this dividing of purpose that I believe has contributed too much of the woes of the ad industry. Imagine going to a doctor for a problem surrounding your right ear. And much to your surprise, the doctor responds, “What you need is a right ear, nose and throat doctor,” he then goes on to say, ”I specialize in the left side only.” How preposterous you say? Of course it is, but it illustrates the point that we’ve lost sight of the larger objectives…of being concerned with only a slice of the brand’s total image instead of all of it.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned since leaving Madison Avenue and taken up my new residence on Commercial Blvd. (Yes, it’s really true), is that in order for a brand to succeed, both brand and retail must be conceived together, at the same time, in equal measured parts.
All retail all the time—translates into a brand that’s only as good as its latest offer. All brand all the time, is to build a fire, but never toss a match to it.
In conclusion by way of metaphor, one of the most popular programs on TV today is “Dancing with the Stars.” Over the last couple seasons, the weekly exposure to ballroom dancing has ignited a love affair with dance again. Alone on a dance floor two figures trade back and forth roles of leading and following, dominance and passivity, speed and agility. I would contend that there’s a great marketing lesson to be learned on the dance floor. And just like the weekly give and take between the dancers—so too is the delicate dance between image and retail. In order for them to become as beloved and desired as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers––they have to dance together.