Ask the Expert: What’s your brand promise and what is it wearing?

Forget the hype of marketing alternatives swirling about you. It’s all about the fundamentals, regardless of which channel you use to broadcast your message. There is indeed a reason that Snuggies sell so well, as you will learn below.

One of my favorite people in the world, and the man who teaches me so much about branding and advertising, is Scott Montgomery. Scott is Principal and Executive Creative Director of Bradley and Montgomery,  which has made both traditional and very untraditional advertising, branding and communications for clients like JPMorgan Chase, VH1, MTV, Knoll, Microsoft and many others.Their recent work includes: a national TV and online campaign for Microsoft Windows, “The Mojave Experiment”; retail environmental rebranding work for JPMorgan Chase when they purchased Washington Mutual; launching a documentary and online campaign supporting Chase Bank and Project Homeowner, a massive effort to help homeowners avoid foreclosure through mortgage modifications at community events and crisis centers; the invention of EmotiClips – shared video snippets in support of MTV’s “The Hills” and other properties; and websites and virals for Microsoft Internet Explorer 8. 

He is also a founding partner of, a firm that tracks social media chatter for entertainment companies so they can tell if their movie or TV show will be a hit or a flop.

Scott’s work had been featured in many national creative pubs, won lots of awards and even rapped with Neal Conan on NPR’s Talk of the Nation.

But blah blah blah. This guy is simply a student of humanity who, like me, loves watching how culture and messaging can change perceptions and mobilize people. Scott is that rare  innovative creative mind who, at the end of the day, fully understands that advertising must result in making cash registers ring. He balances artistic integrity with business necessity. And I dig that about him.

With that, I’m giving him 2 editions for Ask the Expert, because he has so much juicy stuff to share. So pay attention.

RS: What do you think makes a strong brand? The fundamentals?

SM: In a world where absolutely everything in media is changing, let me try to define “brand” in a way that won’t: A brand is exactly two things: It’s the promise your offering makes to people, and the clothes that promise is dressed in. The degree to which that combination generates the behavior you want from people is all that matters.

You don’t need to read yet another treatise on how gorgeously effective brands for Apple and Mercedes are. They are perfect promises for people who want beautiful things. They are the mirrors their buyers want to be reflected in. Articles like this one hold up brands like those as monuments to the power of branding, and they are. But you might also be led to think that elegance and branding are the same thing. I submit to you that they ain’t.

I was trained as a graphic designer, so sometimes it pains me to say this – many brands succeed because of the absolute appropriateness of their ugliness. That’s visual ugliness, ugliness in actions, or both. Here’s why I think the definition above holds:

Some really nasty-lookin’ brands have the power of a simple, appropriate promise. “Brands” that are products, like SlapChop, Snuggie and Sarah Palin are nightmares of “good design” but their antithetical relationships to “good taste” give them power in the marketplace. That’s because – as good brands – their promises are simple, their messages are consistent and their visual expressions are in sync with their value. Just like Apple, Mercedes and the others that usually top brand surveys. Same rules, different demographics.

The quality or “rightness” of the thing makes little difference, either. That’s worth noting.
We in the U.S. still consume a small ocean of bottled water that’s been judged to be no better than Manhattan’s tap water, one that’s shipped half way around the world by boat, plane, train and, ultimately automobile, not because of its uniqueness, but because of its Fijiness. It’s nuts, and particularly evil considering some residents of Fiji don’t have access to potable water themselves, and are living under a regime odious enough to get it kicked out of the Commonwealth of Nations back in September for suspending free elections.

But Fiji is a strong, simple brand promise dressed in attractive clothes. Well done. Branding can be powerful stuff in the right hands. Or the other ones.

So, you’d figure if an icky product can benefit mightily, then it should be even easier for the not-so-icky ones. Then why do a huge number of non-icky companies still get it wrong?

I think it’s because they try to promise wildly disparate things under a single name. They design their offerings for too many audiences, or none at all. They promise a promise that no one wants. Or they do nothing to generate customer behavior. Their promises aren’t compelling, they don’t get people talking – either around the office, at the game, on in their status updates. Say what you will about Snuggie as a product, but its footprint in free social media is huge.

This is where I’m supposed to say, as an agency principal, “an ad agency can sort this out for you.” But increasingly, a lot of them can’t. Wedded to a arguably ineffective interruptive model of creative promotion, a great many agency people are, frankly, clueless. It’s a world in which you may have encountered 4 kinds of screens that weren’t a TV today. And how on Earth will they make money if you aren’t watching TV?

The people who are getting it are finding ways to harness the interactions between consumers, and the myriad opportunities for meaningful engagements with products and their promises. Happily, brands are bigger than advertising, and good promises spread in ways we wouldn’t have imagined even 5 years ago – through social media, through entertainment, through fashion, through the recycling of imagery across the web, through celebrities and events, via phone screens and whatever Magical Tablet Media Procurer cum Location Based Social Appliance that Apple and Microsoft are racing to produce at this writing.

That’s why I believe that as much as things are changing, the fundamentals have become even more important. The clarity of the promise, and the appropriateness of its expression are what matters. Clarity of the promise is more important than ever. It’s a little like the old “telephone” whispering game: as opinion about a brand is passed along and repeated across a widening range of outlets and technologies, it has to be sturdy enough to survive the trip.


See Part 2 with Scott about social media innovations here.

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