For nearly half a century, Jeremy Bullmore, former chairman of JWT London and advisory board member of WPP, has been one of the marketing world’s best commentators.
His speeches, essays and columns – including plenty available on WARC – cut through the jargon of the times and presented a compelling view (always based on his own experience) of brands, communications, research, and much more besides.
To celebrate the launch of a new archive of his work, we caught up with him to get his take on brands in 2022.
Q. You and Stephen King thought a lot about brands in the 1970s – what they are, and why they're useful. Looking back on that early work (the video the two of you made in 1974, for example), what do you think has changed in terms of our understanding of brands? And what do you think hasn't changed?
A: I looked at that video, What is a Brand?, quite recently, and was pleasantly surprised to find that I still agreed with just about all of it and had nothing much to add. But I then had to decide: was this because nothing very much had changed in our understanding of brands? Or was it because it was me who hadn’t changed (had I become stuck in my elderly opinions?) You won’t be surprised to learn that I found myself innocent.
Why don’t you invite your readers to view WIAB (freely available on YouTube: beware of imitations) and then answer your question themselves. I’d be happy to be part of a small judging panel. I promise to publicly amend my verdict and find myself wanting if the winning entries are informed and persuasive enough.
[Any takers? We’ll publish any responses that meet Jeremy’s criteria!]
Q: One of your best-known pieces argued that brands succeed when they are famous. It drew a parallel between Posh Spice and Persil – what drew you to that comparison?
A: That illuminating comparison was made not by me but by Posh Spice herself. In the introduction to her autobiography, Victoria Beckham wrote, “Right from the beginning, I wanted to be more famous than Persil Automatic.”
There had been many attempts to define the quality that all successful brands had in common. Andrew Ehrenberg, deservedly the most influential academic on the subject of brands, believed that quality to be salience: that the brand needed to be top of people’s minds.
I agreed – but felt that the word salience was a little too dry and academic to persuade agency people of its usefulness. Salience was not a word bandied about in creative departments nor even among account planners. I had begun to suggest that the quality all successful brands had in common was a kind of fame. Posh Spice, of course, was blissfully unaware of all this – so I was overjoyed by her comment. I’d been drawing a parallel between the fame enjoyed by famous people (understood by everyone) and the ‘fame’ enjoyed by successful brands. Posh Spice did the opposite. That Persil Automatic was famous came far more believably from one of the Spice Girls than from me. Thank you, Posh..
Q: How important is it for brands to have a 'purpose'?
A: Every brand has a purpose: to get carpets clean, to alleviate pain, to serve as a welcome gift. A brand that fails to deliver its purpose will fail as a brand. But I notice you decorate the word purpose with inverted commas: ‘purpose’. And a ‘purpose’ is something altogether grander – and almost invariably a pretentious confection.
Brands aren’t conceived and launched to save the planet, to mitigate child poverty, or to monitor world peace. The belief that every brand should have such a ‘purpose’ is responsible for much risible marketing and the waste of millions of pounds.
But some ‘purposes’ do have a real value; but never as the primary reason for a brand’s existence; more accurately as accidental bonuses.
I found this out quite early in my life as a copywriter. My brief was to write a recruitment ad for Courtaulds. They wanted applications for senior executive positions and I was given all the necessary details: salary, location, profit sharing, prospects, perks. The ad ran once – and delivered an underwhelming response. I then wrote another, which the company agreed to run in exactly the same publications. This one contained all the same key details but introduced one new thought. It reminded readers that one of the accidental benefits of man-made fibres – in which Courtaulds were a market leader – was that man-made fibres freed up precious land for growing food and feeding livestock. Since populations were growing and land stock remained naturally finite, this benefit could only become more valuable.
This ad elicited double the response of the first. No lies were told. There was no grandiose claim that Courtaulds manufactured man-made fibres for the specific purpose of making optimum use of the limited availability of land for the good of all mankind. But potential executives were pleased to think that they that could be working for a company whose product had this accidental beneficial effect. And that was enough.
Obviously, not every brand delivers an equivalent subsidiary benefit. But every brand should examine its role in life to make sure that none exists. If the answer is negative, the temptation to invent one must be ruthlessly resisted. If one is uncovered, it may certainly be revealed; but under no circumstance should it be given greater significance than it deserves; it must never be presented as a ‘purpose’.
Q: Why do you think the concept of 'brand-building' is still so hard to sell in to CEOs and CFOs?
A: Within marketing companies, the allocation and approval of marketing budgets is seldom a friction-free, consensual affair. The sums involved are significant and arguments for and against will be fierce. And, crucially, available data in support of the advocates and the doubters are very unevenly distributed.
Let’s say that last year, the annual sales conference set a volume sales target of plus 6 per cent and agreed an advertising expenditure of £3million. Last year’s actual volume sales were plus 1.7 per cent.
These are not helpful facts for those arguing for a further increase in marketing expenditure.
To do their jobs, CEOs and CFOs are heavily dependent on numbers. Indeed, for some important parts of those jobs, the law obliges them to be. When internal dissension surfaces, say between marketing director and financial director, the financial director is being entirely reasonable when he says that last year’s numbers ‘surely speak for themselves.’
The marketing director plaintively responds that the financial director is totally ignoring the contribution that advertising has made to building the brand; but he has no numbers to support him; and he’s probably made a mistake in using the word building. Building promises an increase of some kind: in sales, or margin or brand value. Year after year, much successful marketing achieves none of these.
In the macho world of marketing, standing still is not a manly achievement – still less a respectable declared ambition or target. CEOs would be far more receptive to brand expenditure if their marketing people talked to them straight about the nature of brands.
A good beginning is to talk to them about the critical importance of brand fame: see Posh Spice, above. Brand fame is needed for sales; and just as importantly, it protects margins. Then remind your CEO that one of the immutable characteristics of fame is that it fades. Ask any publicist: if their clients are out of the public eye for long, they attract fewer offers and command lower fees. CEOs don’t need persuading that their plant needs annual maintenance; so do their brands. If ‘brand maintenance’ became as understood an essential as capex, CEOs and CFOs, being better informed, would be more open to requests for expenditure.
Well-crafted brand maintenance work can of course do more than maintain a brand’s position; it can indeed make it more valuable. And that’s something that can’t be said for capex.
The Jeremy Bullmore archive is available at www.bestofbullmore.com.