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The Great Madison Avenue Branding Rip-Off

November 17th, 2005 by Bob Bly

Is Madison Avenue ripping off its clients?

Yes, according to my friend Richard Armstrong, one of the top freelance copywriters working today.

His premise is that the ad world?s emphasis on branding is misguided ? and that branding is only one of many factors (and not the most important factor) in selling.

But let Rich explain?.

?I’ve always said that you could fire a high-powered rifle down the middle of Madison Avenue at high-noon on a weekday and not be in danger of hitting anyone who’d ever read a single book about advertising. There is just very little in the way of what I’d call ?technical expertise’ in the world of general advertising.

?But because it’s impossible to survive in business on bullshit alone, a lot of these guys have focused on ?branding? as the alpha and omega of marketing.

?Get three Madison Avenue types in a room and it’s ?branding? this and ?branding? that. But it’s ridiculous.

?Look, I believe in branding. I’m sure you do, too. But to me, it’s just one of MANY credibility factors that go into an advertisement.

?If the product comes from a company that people know and trust, great ? go ahead and make use of that in your ad. But you CAN?T build your whole marketing campaign around it.?

The conclusion: branding is just one of many CREDIBILITY factors in marketing ? and credibility is just one of multiple factors in selling ? so to devote your advertising to building the brand is to do something like 1/10th of the selling job it should be doing.

Do you agree? If so, is Madison Avenue conning or misleading its clients on a massive sale?

Or is branding indeed the holy grail of marketing? And are Richard and I just out of touch with this great truth?


This entry was posted on Thursday, November 17th, 2005 at 10:50 am and is filed under Branding. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

332 responses about “The Great Madison Avenue Branding Rip-Off”

  1. Joel Heffner said:

    Apple is a well known brand. Apple lovers will buy just about anything that Apple puts out. On the other hand, GM is a well known brand as well. People aren’t exactly flocking to buy from them, except perhaps when they deeply discount. If branding was the (only) holy grail…GM would be the Apple of the car world…wouldn’t it? It seems as though there must be a lot more than just the brand.


  2. Bob Bly said:

    Joel: Yes, that’s the point. GM, for instance, had a huge sales lift from their campaign based on the offer: buy a GM car for the same discount GM employees pay.

  3. TonyD said:

    The strength of Apple’s brand certainly isn’t built on the brand alone. It starts from the products. Before there was a brand there were products. Apple’s products (and corporate leaders) have shown that they can inspire customers. It’s brilliant use of advertising and design doesn’t hurt either. The brand just extends this base (in my ever so humber opinion).

  4. Steve Slaunwhite said:

    Tony: I must be slow on the uptake today. Because I’ve read your post twice and still don’t understand a word of it. Would you mind clarifying some of your points? Thanks!

  5. Bruce DeBoer said:

    I fundementally agree with everything written here. However, as Bob and Rich point out, it’s in the mix. Ingredients being the same, Apple without good products would be GM. BUT – and here’s the rub, GM with good products WOULDN’T be Apple.

  6. johnmoore (from Brand Autopsy) said:

    As marketers, we get paid to over-think how to build great brands. From working deep inside the marketing departments of Starbucks Coffee and Whole Foods Market, I have become convinced great branding happens when a business does everything else right.

  7. Bruce DeBoer said:

    Very well said John.

  8. Shelle Castles-Melton said:

    Some copywriters and I were just discussing this very thing the other day. A few of us, myself included, believe that your customers brand you as you prove yourself. That means that your brand cannot preclude your success. It’s your reputation that counts. Think Coke, Nike, AT&T, etc. Their tag lines aren’t the same thing as branding. It’s their NAME that’s synonymous with the feeling behind their products. THAT’S branding. It can’t come before the business has a reputation. Just my thoughts.

  9. Rob Marsh said:

    Unfortunately we don’t have a common definition of branding. What Madison Avenue calls “branding”, is really image advertising. John Moore is right. Branding includes image advertising and everything else a business does (from operations to marketing). Madision Avenue focuses on image advertising (and sells it as branding) because that is what they do better than anyone else. Others would argue that direct marketing techniques like testimonials, feature and benefit descriptions, lift letters, and so on are important part of creating a brand, because that is what they are good at. As long as “branding” is the hot marketing concept, everyone is going to try to claim the space.

    Apple is a great brand because the entire business from the CEO down is aligned to deliver quality customer experiences (not because is has a great name or great advertising). The same can’t be said for GM, though it might be said for BMW. And remember, Apple hasn’t always been a great brand. Anyone remember the Gil Amelio era? And GM hasn’t always been a forgettable brand. Brands changes to reflect the behavior of the business.

  10. Bob Bly said:

    Johnmoore and Bruce: As a copywriter, I don’t get paid to “build great brands.” I get paid to generate greater ROI from my clients marketing. In other words, to make the cash register ring.

  11. Danny said:

    I think it’s silly to imply that, because Coke runs image spots on TV, that they are being duped by Madison Avenue. Or Nike. Or GM. Or Apple.

    In all of these companies, the Madison Avenue aspect is only a part of their marketing strategies. (Although, neither is branding the sole aspect of the MadAve shops)

    I don’t call an electrician a fraud just because he doesn’t also check my pipes and my roof for problems. Moreover, neither do the plumber or roofer.

  12. Bob Bly said:

    Danny: My opinion is that image advertising is largely a waste of money, and because you can’t measure the ROI, the practice of image advertising is questionable at best, and unproductive at worst. What part of that don’t you agree with?

  13. DUST!N said:

    The real problem is we all have a fundamentally different opinion of what branding really is.

    Image advertising? That’s all it is in it’s worst form.

    An overflow of the business model? That’s probably what it is in it’s best.

    The problem isn’t that Madison Avenue is ripping off their clients, it is that they are ripping off the concept of branding… or even worse, of marketing in and of itself. Madison Avenue (and even off-off Madison Avenue) has marginalized marketing. They’ve made it into a play thing that creatives toy around with (I can say that since I am a “creative”). They’ve completely disconnected it from the business model (i.e. CP&G Burger King campaigns).

    I don’t believe that is the true intention of proper branding.

    I know it isn’t the true intended purpose of marketing.

  14. Matt Spergel said:

    IMHO, if we were to compare the two, communicating with customers trumps branding any day of the week.

  15. DUST!N said:

    Uhm, Matt… shouldn’t your communication with customers be branded? Branding and communicating with customers are not mutually exclusive.

  16. Matt Spergel said:

    Umm, DUST!N … I said IF we were to compare the two. And no, your communication with customers DOES NOT need to be branded. It needs to provide a clear reason to buy a product or service from you.

  17. DUST!N said:

    Matt, first of all I apologize for the “Uhm…” It stinks of condescension. Not what I intended.

    Yes, if you were to separate the two (in order to compare them) then communication with customers would be more important. Moot point in my opinion. Why would you separate the two?

    Communication IS branded NO MATTER WHAT.

    My previous comment is a good example. My personal brand would be centered around inspiration. Encouragement. Provoking. Motivational. But by leading with “Uhm…” I gave myself very little chance of being inspirational. Little hope of being persuasive in any form. That falls outside of my intended brand. Yet, it’s still branded.

    Same for Starbucks (chosen for its ubiquity and strong brand). If a barista were to tell a customer, “Whaddya want!?! I’m in a hurry and got no time for your stalling.” to a customer who was pondering an order… that would fall outside of Starbucks’ brand.

    So, which was more important? The branding (friendly, helpful, informative service) or communicating with the customer?

    Comparing branding to communicating with customers? It’s kind of like comparing a t-shirt to red. It’s a red t-shirt… let it be. That’s my point.

    Hope I communicated it more effectively this time.

  18. Matt Spergel said:


    Apology accepted.

    No, it’s not a moot point. Why would I separate the two? To provide insight into the fundamentals of business and communications.

    Communication IS NOT BRANDED NO MATTER WHAT. When I share an experience or knowledge with a friend than that is DEFINITELY NOT BRANDED.

    I think personal brands are poppycock. I bet Bob Bly would agree with me. I doubt he’d call himself a brand. I wouldn’t call myself a brand either. We’re people – not brands.

    As for the Starbucks example, I’d say that’s just plain bad business.

    Friendly, helpful, and informative service are expected of businesses by society. That is not a differentiator of a brand.

    No, comparing branding to communicating with customers is not like comparing a t-shirt to red.

    Good luck with your endeavors,

  19. Matt Spergel said:


    And please remember that we’re talking about branding and communication in the context of advertising.


  20. DUST!N said:


    I enjoy the debate, but I think we have very different definitions of branding and views on how it’s used.

    “Friendly, helpful, and informative service are expected of businesses by society.”

    True, but they’re often not delivered. A business that doesn’t consistently provide this ends up with a tarnished brand. In fact, as Tom Asacker points out above, those “expectations” are exactly what a brand is.


    Yes, I got off-topic here. I drifted outside the context of advertising (as the discussion had already done). Maybe I did so because I feel like advertising has only so much to do with a business’ brand.

    But, I think we both agree that very little advertising should be committed to purely branding. I would say it should be committed mostly to (branded) calls to action. Too many ads leave the viewer asking, “OK. But what’s next?”


    Personal brands are poppycock? Wow. I must be full of it.



  21. Peter S said:

    Branding is the sum total of POSITIVE feelings and thoughts the mass market has about a product before and after they experience an ad. The ad either reinforces or destroys that positive attitude toward the brand. In DM, we don’t build brands typically because we’re going for a sale, or a particular response, not an abiding attitude, though we often make use of that abiding attitude to help make a particular sale. Talk about brands often does veer toward nonsense because brand is always something over and above the specific ways a company touches its customers. In a sense, it’s the total result of all those touches and carries on after those touches are done. For example, a person sees an ad in a magazine that helps build or reinforce the product’s brand in the person’s mind. If done well, the brand keeps working in the person’s mind while time passes before the person is in a position to actually buy the product. Brand is like a wine’s “nose” and “finish.” It’s what lingers between actual experiences of the product. So brand is necessarily hard to pin down as “some thing.” GM has a brand, but it’s been hurt a lot by poor customer touches. How can anyone doubt the power of brand? Don’t you always prefer Kodak, Fuji, or Agfa film to the no-name brand? Brand is located inside the feeling of trust of, and predisposition to prefer, a certain product over others that may, in fact, be better or just as good.

  22. Jon Refsdahl said:

    This is a great debate, and it brings back memories to John kennedy and Lasker on the discovery of the definition of advertising; At that time “salesmanship in print”. (anno 2006 “salesmanship multiplied” or “salesmanship in media”)

    Today branding is a fashion word used on everything to position the service as a strategic service. But I think we have to look at the definiton of the word, and this is not so easy for me, since I am a Norwegian, but what the heck, I give it a try…(so I hope you excuse my bad english and try to look for the answer. Definiton; what is branding? (according to the webster dictionary)

    Noun 1. The act of stigmatizing.

    Domain Definitions:
    Food & Agriculture: The imprinting of a distinctive mark on the skin of an animal with a hot iron for purposes of identification

    Branding=Identification and of cause that’s important in selling, but fare from the whole prosess.
    So yes, Branding is A Madison Avenue Rip-Off (But I think it’s done with the best intentiones, it’s just because they dont know better) This is also a reason why all kinds of stuff is beeng put in under the branding umbrella… The definiton of brandig is way out of control…. Internal branding, image brand advertising, brand stamp, brand loyalty, branded customer service, Brand identity, etc. Why not just call it service and loyalty, idetity, etc. Insted of the branding word in front?… its because the branding description is giving it a strategic positioning. I don’t know why, but I can’t tink of another reason… I think this is also a debate where the creative forces fight for their own position. Suddely branding is become almost synonymus with the whole marketing prosess??? And on top of that you have the creative, entertainment debate of advertising VS… ad’s that do the job and sell the stuff…) Then some thinks that the image and the brand (Company or product identity) is more important than the sales results. And that is of course BS to…

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