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Yes, Brands Work

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Kara Swisher over at All Things Digital approvingly quotes NeoAtOgilvy COO Greg Smith: “No one wants a relationship with their mustard.”

But, then, why do people buy the mustard they buy? Why do people persist in buying French’s, Gulden’s and Grey Poupon? Not price: store brands are cheaper. Not quality: no more than a tiny minority of people are going to notice the difference between French’s Deli Brown and the equivalent store brand once it’s slathered on a hotdog. But people persist in spending more for equivalent quality mustard, even though most people have had some opportunity to try store-brand mustards. Why?

Marketing. People have an attachment to brands. The attachment may be economically irrational, but there is no denying it. When I walk into a grocery store and stare at the hundreds of different mustards, I choose one. The one I choose makes me feel something; safe, perhaps, or the warm glow of family cookouts past. Swisher may be uncomfortable calling this a relationship, but that’s what it is.

Swisher goes on to say

This odd but spot-on observation was about why big packaged goods advertisers–who are the really big spenders of the ad business–might be less than interested leveraging social media advertising and its promise of deep engagement with consumer… No one wants to interact over mustard or mayo or ketchup or most products that pay the rent up and down Madison Avenue.

She’s right: no one wants to interact. But ads don’t ask people to interact with the product, they get people to engage with the brand. And maybe no one wants to engage with mustard brands. But they do. They deeply engage with ads primarily because they are deeply engaged with the surrounding content. The promise of social media marketing is to reach consumers in an environment where they are already receptive and deeply engaged and then take advantage of that existing frame of mind to reinforce a brand relationship.

TV is still the master of brand advertising. Social media is the closest the web has come to TV in creating a receptive frame of mind and engagement. No one has found the secret to marketing brands online yet, but the reason is not, as Swisher implies, that brands don’t work.