“Branding” Is A Dangerous Gig

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(By Ronald Robinson) Any discussion of “branding” can quickly turn into a wild scurrying to radio operators’ panic-burrows – places of security where unsettling challenges can be avoided. “Branding,” indeed, is a mean, ugly term.

In the early ‘90s, a couple of astute ad-guys penned the book ’Positioning’ – The Battle For Your Mind. One of their many contentions in the book related to the responsibility of advertisers to manipulate the minds of their current and potential customers.

Years later, “positioning,” as a term, was usurped by “branding.” The challenges for understanding and applying either are similar. One of the more common uses of the word is as a static noun. AEs and advertisers talk about the client’s brand – as if it existed and could be identified. “Now,” they agree, “since that branding thingy is done, we can go flog some cars!”

“Branding” is a process verb (present progressive) – and it’s an ongoing process. And, indeed, brand positions of some kind already do exist in the minds of listeners. The questions are about clarity of the messages, the emotional impact of the advertising, the acceptance being held in the minds of listeners, and any resulting buying behaviors demonstrated by customers.

Practically, based on the majority of radio spots produced and airing locally, the concept of branding has been, essentially, ignored. Perhaps that is because of the belief that the branding part is over or, more dangerously, that the direct ads being produced are part of the branding! And yes, to a degree, these direct ads are part of the branding – just not the especially useful, satisfactory part.

Now, I readily admit standard-issue direct spots are the lifeblood of every local radio station. That most of them are atrocious examples of appropriate and effective radio communication seems to be lost on the operators. It need not be this way as there are many, many alternatives available that would instantly spruce up these shoddy demonstrations of banal, maudlin, annoying, unlistenable, but desperately needed examples of radio advertising messaging.

While ignoring, for a moment, the intricacies and requirements for producing effective branding materials, I wonder: Does anybody else notice when managers return from their semi-annual “slurp & burp” confabs, nobody is carrying a laminated, agreed-upon edict to “make every effort to improve the quality of our commercial and on-air content that would generate greater loyalty from our audiences while providing more prosperity for our advertisers – and ourselves”? No? Drat.

The premise of the branding exercise is to influence the mind of the consumer. This becomes a situation akin to handling sensitive explosives – dangerous at all times and only functional when that which is supposed to be blown up, is. When local producers make the attempt to create some branding content, what happens too often is that somebody hollers out “Fire in the hole!” well before the hole has been dug and the explosives placed.

When AEs are out touting “top-of-mind awareness” to their clients, they fail to mention how that conscious awareness lasts about as long as it takes to drive a block and a half or to take a phone call. People who realize they are actually in the market in that moment will be more likely to respond to a direct ad. The working reality is about unconscious retention that may last a tad longer, but with no assurances of desired audience responses. Generating that takes work.

For decades, extremely well-educated, supremely sophisticated folks who toiled for major ad-producing agencies left the rest of radio’s (mostly) amateur ad people in the shade. Let no one take the position that such ads are being produced only to win awards. Rather, they are being produced to mold, warp, and influence our minds to the degree where we can be bamboozled into accepting and believing claims about almost any idea, product, or service with few challenges coming from we the consumers.

Television constantly provides just such ads. We all would be the ripe rubes who, after exposure to these incredibly expensive and effective spots, might haughtily pontificate, “That don’ make no sense at all.” Nevertheless, that’s branding! And that takes skill.

Ronald T. Robinson has been involved in Canadian radio since the ’60s as a performer, writer and coach, and has trained and certified as a personal counselor. Email him at info@voicetalentguy.com.

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