Are brand and product messages in conflict?

Photo: @titovailona via Twenty20
Jan 12, 2022

In the technology space, in-house teams are facing challenges balancing product public relations with the desire to showcase their company’s value, mission and purpose, according to a new study.

Allison+Partners commissioned a survey of more than 1,000 technology marketing and communications decision makers across the U.S., Germany, UK, Singapore and China to explore the question: “When it comes to storytelling, which comes first…the brand or the product?”

The study found:

  • Seventy-seven percent believe in the power of authentic, brand-first storytelling to showcase a company’s value, purpose and mission.
  • Seventy-two percent feel their customers make more purchasing decisions based on the strength of the overall brand than they did three years ago.
  • Eighty-eight percent believe their C-suite understands the value of an authentic brand.

Yet, according to the research, only 58 percent believe their company truly prioritizes brand-focused campaigns. One out of four admit to the sales initiatives pushing a product-only approach to influence customers.

The study concluded that that traditional “hyperfocused comms around speeds, feeds and services are waning,” but urged balance because a brand-only emphasis also holds risks. Allison+Partners wrote, “An either/or approach to brand vs. product will only lead to frustration and misalignment.”

Brands across industries are believed to be receiving greater allegiance from consumers, particularly younger ones, for embracing a higher, more noble aspiration than just pushing products and services.

IBM and the National Retail Federation’s just-released second global consumer retail study found purpose-driven consumers, who choose products/brands based on values like sustainability, are now the largest segment of consumers (44 percent).

The internet is full of advice on the long-term benefits of brand marketing to reputations, the near-term benefit of product marketing in calls to action, and advice on how to balance both. 

In a recent 2022 trends article for Adweek, Will Stacy, chief marketing and digital officer for GM Financial, the captive financial arm of General Motors, said, “We have to get away from this idea that marketing is just logos, slogans and ads versus the reality that marketing now involves a lot of product marketing. We have to think as product marketers just as much as we think of ourselves as marketers selling a brand.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Have you been seeing heightened conflicts between brand marketing and product marketing, and what advice do you have for marketers? How does the imperative for purpose-driven positioning play into marketing decisions?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"It’s competitive on the shelf and keeping it simple for consumers still has to be the priority."
"My advice to marketers is to quit talking to other marketers and start listening to a broader cross-section of consumers."
"I think this reflects the pressure being driven by consumers’ switch to digital as their preferred way to initially interact with a brand, especially in a retail context."

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16 Comments on "Are brand and product messages in conflict?"

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Bob Phibbs

CPG companies I see are failing to deliver in brand messaging. What does it do for me? That’s the number one concern, not your values or marketing-speak. It’s competitive on the shelf and keeping it simple for consumers still has to be the priority.

Nikki Baird
I think this reflects the pressure being driven by consumers’ switch to digital as their preferred way to initially interact with a brand, especially in a retail context. It wasn’t that long ago that the store was considered the main ambassador of brand, whether talking about the retailer’s brand or a product brand featured under the retailer’s roof. You came to the store, you tried or bought and brought home to try, and that experience engendered trust in the brand. That’s all flipped on its head now. You learn about the brand online, develop trust, and then when you see it in a physical retail setting you have the trust to buy and try. That means brands need to lead with the brand story online, and use it to transition customers into product interest. It certainly isn’t either/or, but the order presented to new customers is important – if you hit them with all product messages and then try to say “and we’re a good company with strong values,” that’s not going to resonate. You… Read more »
Dr. Stephen Needel

Reading these secondary references, the advice is clear – nobody knows. Younger shoppers say that things like sustainability and green-ness matter, yet they are buying much of the same stuff we senior citizens buy. The answer is, do the research you need to tell you which direction is for you. It used to be a split-cable test, now it would have to be a matched market test, but create two marketing approaches, one brand-oriented and one product-oriented, and see which sells more.

Neil Saunders

An obsession with finding a “higher purpose” for brands that really don’t need them came under fire yesterday when a UK investment manager criticized Unilever. He said:

“A company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise has, in our view, clearly lost the plot. The Hellmann’s brand has existed since 1913 so we would guess that by now consumers have figured out its purpose (spoiler alert – salads and sandwiches).”

There is truth in that view.

Richard Hernandez

Agreed. Tell me what it’s for – if they make the jar from recyclable glass bottles fine, but I just want to know the mayonnaise is for sandwiches.

Doug Garnett
At core, we must accept that brand is more motivating for us than it is for the customer. The brand “Apple” means nothing without the product specifics. We don’t go out to “buy an Apple” – we head out to buy a smartphone and want it to be Apple brand. Thus the tension in the company is artificial because it’s not tension for customers. Customers buy products which have a brand. Customers shop at the stores they like which also have a brand. The tension described here, though, is that of promotion vs. brand. Great product advertising ALWAYS builds good brand because it’s focused on how the product fits a customer life and does that consistently with brand. Promotion, though, is all about near term moving of goods motivated by price. Sergio Zyman has observed that in absence of meaning, customers fall back on price. The question for retailers is how products bring customers into the store in ways which build brand. They do it by offering meaning and will do that more effectively than… Read more »
David Slavick

As sustainability, social consciousness, being charitable and sharing brand values becomes more and more important to consumers indeed the balance between product and brand values is a challenge for the CMO and their creative agency as well as public relations team. This is not new, as competing priorities or where to emphasize what and when has been in play for decades. P&G, Unilever, SC Johnson, J&J, Coke and Pepsi have always had a portion of their marketing or public relations budget allocated to brand values, ecology, pollution, recycling and more. Today, you even have a tobacco company in Japan highlighting human rights, sustainability and enjoying the great outdoors (conveniently that is where you might enjoy a smoke).

DeAnn Campbell

Telling a brand story that resonates with shoppers is crucial but pointless if the product isn’t great. I do think consumers shop the brand first – Apple wouldn’t be here without their powerful “for the crazy ones” story to grab our imagination and attention. But if the product fails to deliver on expectations or quality, no story will ever make up for that. With so much more competition easily found through internet searches, brand and product have become two sides of the same coin – you can’t succeed without both equally.

Gene Detroyer

If you are not selling the product and people are not buying it, a company’s value, purpose and mission is worthless.

Dave Bruno

This is an age-old challenge, even in the digital era: Brand marketing investments are difficult to justify because it is so difficult to quantify consumer mindshare. Product marketing can be measured in very quantifiable metrics like lift, recency, frequency, etc., which makes it much easier to request, justify and receive funding for product marketing initiatives.

Brandon Rael

Every marketing strategy should focus on both the brand and product value proposition, which should be consistent across all channels. Every customer interaction should be consistent with the brand value proposition, with an intense focus on the customer experience. This has become increasingly important as customers demand a trusting and transparent relationship with the brands they enjoy.

With the rise of purpose-driven and conscious consumerism, brands must establish and remain true to their socially responsible movements, especially sustainability. We expect sustainability and transparency to be prevailing themes throughout 2022 and beyond. The imperative for companies is that their products accurately represent their brand promise.

Ryan Mathews
My advice to marketers is to quit talking to other marketers and start listening to a broader cross-section of consumers. Let’s look at some of these results: 77 percent “believe” in the power of authentic, brand-first storytelling; 72 percent “feel” their customers make more purchasing decisions based on the strength of the overall brand than they did three years ago; and 88 percent “believe” their C-suite understands the value of an authentic brand. In other words we now know that people drink their own Kool-Aid. If they didn’t believe these things it would be hard to explain the last five years of marketing “strategy.” When is the last time you have seen a real, flesh-and-blood consumer ask where the Procter & Gamble aisle was? As Neil Saunders so brilliantly points out, what is the real meaning of mayonnaise? And how about all those income constrained shoppers out there that provided the foundation of the Walmart and Aldi empires? Are they looking for authentication, aspiration, and affirmation or just affordable food? As my Irish grandmother used… Read more »
Jeff Sward
Sometimes product is just product, but most of the time it’s about product + emotion. How does the customer feel about that product? A private label polo shirt evokes different feelings than a Ralph Lauren polo shirt. They may technically be very similar product at the molecular level, but a couple of pennies worth of embroidery means that the Ralph Lauren shirt is perceived very differently than the private label shirt. Marketing and brand messaging have created that difference in perceived value. Purpose driven positioning has to be genuine, but it’s still about managing emotions. It can elevate a customers perception of a product from obscurity to a new found level of appreciation. Some people are perfectly happy with the private label polo shirt, and some want the elevated feeling of the Ralph Lauren shirt. Some people just shop price and some will want to pay for the elevated feeling that comes with a product with a purpose driven element. Purpose driven positioning is a play to the emotions, but it still has to be… Read more »
Patricia Vekich Waldron

In order to engage with today’s consumer, retailers need to be purpose-driven and authentic in all aspects of their operation — merchandise, marketing, service and internal operations.

Rachelle King

I have worked closely with product marketers and brand marketers. They are not cut from the same cloth. If companies want to do both, then most would be wise to look internally first and ensure they have the right talent in the right place. While consumers may increasingly choose brands that align with their values, they choose products because they work. Marketers need to connect the two, starting with how they structure brand teams.

Anil Patel
Customers don’t align with the product much. They align with the brand’s mission statement. Conflict arises when you fail to justify the’ why’ behind a brand’s offering and focus solely on product marketing. And Starbucks is the best example of this. We all know why Howard Schultz had to return to Starbucks after 8 long years of stepping down. Customers had stopped relating to the product due to price despite claims of the product being unbeatable. I remember Schultz saying, “Success is shallow if it doesn’t have emotional meaning,” and that’s where brand marketing came in handy. You have to have complete trust in your core reason for being. Purpose-driven positioning can play into marketing decisions only when the leadership team gets the brand’s essence. You need to define ‘what you stand for’ and stick to it. In the Starbucks example, another reason for the downfall was that the new leader failed to get the real essence of the brand. The new leadership team needed to pick the original ideas and values that Schultz had… Read more »
"It’s competitive on the shelf and keeping it simple for consumers still has to be the priority."
"My advice to marketers is to quit talking to other marketers and start listening to a broader cross-section of consumers."
"I think this reflects the pressure being driven by consumers’ switch to digital as their preferred way to initially interact with a brand, especially in a retail context."

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