Marlboro has done a bang-up job, but Coca-Cola almost blew it. AT&T; is right on target but Sears may have lost it.
Although America's biggest companies are spending tens of billions of dollars each year to create and nurture their brand images, most are going about it the wrong way. That is the conclusion of a five-year consumer study to be unveiled in New York today by the ad agency N W Ayer Inc. In the 1990s, the study warns, marketers are running the risk of losing touch with consumers.
The problem: Most companies still don't know how to reach consumers through their brands.
More than anything else, "brand image" consists of the qualities that consumers associate with a brand and the emotional reaction that those qualities produce. A favorable reaction can often result in a decision to buy one product over another. Marlboro's macho cowboy and AT&T;'s image of reliability have long succeeded in luring customers. But marketing experts say consumers can be easily confused over what a brand stands for, such as when Coke introduced its new formula or when Sears suddenly announced a policy of everyday low prices.
"Brands have to become much more human so that people can relate to them in a human way," said Fred Posner, an Ayer executive vice president who oversaw the study. "You need a personality and a consistency. But you can't just claim in your advertising that you have a personality." That personality, he said, has to be consistent in the product--as well as its packaging, pricing and promotion.
"The '90s will be a period of searching for identity in an increasingly confused and chaotic world," said Posner.
In just one hour of watching television, the typical consumer sees about 30 different commercials--most of which are 15 or 30 seconds long. On a daily basis, the average consumer is bombarded with an estimated 3,000 commercial messages--ranging from billboards to radio spots.
At the same time, however, a growing number of companies are investing less money to strengthen their brands. Today, most firms spend nearly twice as much on fast-sale promotions than they spend on brand image advertising. Just 20 years ago, those figures were reversed.
"There has been a short-term focus on quarterly profits," said Posner. But establishing a brand's image "is not done in a quarter. It takes careful, methodical support."
This is not to say that Ayer has always excelled at creating successful brand images for its clients. During the past two years, it lost such major clients as Burger King and Continental Airlines, which have struggled for years to develop clear brand images. But Ayer has seen some recent success in improving images for its huge retail client, J. C. Penney.
Few companies have more carefully nurtured the brand image for a product than Brown-Forman Beverage Co., which makes Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey. Jack Daniel's has not strayed one iota from its folksy print campaign for the past 36 years.
That laid-back image has been created through a long-running series of black-and-white print advertisements. The ads are always informal photographs of people who work at the company's lone distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn. The only sign of the whiskey is a tiny picture of it buried at the bottom of each ad. "Without a brand image, you can't expect to have any long-term success," said Rick Cahill, senior brand manager for Jack Daniel's. "I attribute all of the success of the brand to its image."