Today, I spoke to Allen P. Adamson, who  is the author of BrandDigital: Simple Ways Top Brands Succeed in the Digital World and the managing director of Landor Associates. In this interview Allen shares his wisdom of years of experience in the branding world, including a thorough explaination of the difference between advertising and public relations, the three most important branding rules, mistakes he’s seen brands make, and much more.


Does advertising or public relations have the leading edge in the online arena?

Before answering this question, let me clarify the major difference between advertising and public relations.

  • Advertising: While both are meant to build awareness of a product, a service, or even a person, marketers pay a fee for advertising in a specific media channel and have direct control of the ad content they’re paying for.
  • Public Relations: Public relations, on the other hand, is the skillful practice of getting the public or the media, or both, to pick up news about a product, service, or person, as a way of having it spread organically – and, for free – to others who might find the topic of interest. Obviously, the key to PR success is to have the news passed along as intended, without negative spin.

Given that digital technology has turbo-charged the ways and means that information can be shared – spread organically – I’d have to say that public relations has an edge over advertising in the online marketing arena. Because of sites like Twitter and Facebook, as a result of blogs and industry review sites, the ability for the public to spread the word has accelerated dramatically. Good marketers understand this and are using digital technology to their benefit and for the benefit of their customers.

For example, the Ford Motor Company has been using a PR initiative with great success as part of the U. S. launch strategy for its 2010 Ford Fiesta. It has taken 100 of its award-winning Euro-spec Fiestas and made them available to 100 key digital influencers from a variety of places across the web. These folks are sending their feedback to Ford and also posting their thoughts on a number of social media sites. Ford will use the input to create a car that meets the needs of the American driver, and they’ll get this input while the car is still in production. The initiative is driving efficiencies in operating costs and marketing costs.

While PR content is susceptible to negative spin, as can be easily witnessed in YouTube videos or on review sites for products, smart marketers use this transparency as a way to see what needs fixing – and they can address it more quickly than in the past. Having said this, while PR is currently ahead in the online race, I think that advertising will catch up as channels of technology evolve and online tracking and analysis of ads becomes more actionable; more so as devices like the Amazon Kindle become more popular than traditional print media.

What are the 3 most important rules for building a successful brand?

The three most important rules for building a successful brand sound easy in concept, but they’re pretty challenging when it comes to actual execution. The ability to abide by these rules is what separates the winners from the losers.

  1. Every successful brand is built on a promise to do something meaningfully different from its competition which it communicates in a way that’s simple to understand and easy to remember; it’s a “sticky” idea. For example, Southwest’s brand is built on giving people the freedom to “move about the country” because its fares are low and its policies as hassle-free as an airlines’ can be. Relevantly different from what its competitors promise; simple to understand and remember.
  2. Everyone responsible for delivering the brand experience (which means everyone in the company) must understand what their brand’s promise represents in the minds of consumers; they must internalize it and be able to act on it intuitively (another reason a brand idea must be simple and sticky). The ability for every company employee to “be the brand” is paramount to success.
  3. The consumer’s experience with the brand must be consistent and convincingly proprietary across all points of touch, be it product functionality, customer service, packaging, web presence or advertising. In other words, all expressions of the brand idea must be harmonious and eloquent in effect to make a positive and lasting impression with consumers.

Will a brand be able to survive the next decade without an online presence (company, product or individual)?

“Forget the next decade. Brands can’t survive today without an online presence.”

The Internet has become the most important point of touch a brand has with a consumer, and it’s generally the first point. Tell me about a new product, and I’ll Google it. Tell me you paid less for a ticket on one airline versus another and I’ll compare and contrast next time I fly. Tell me you saw a great review of a movie and I’ll read it. Tell me about a YouTube video spoofing a company’s CEO and I’ll watch it.

More often than not, when consumers form an association with a brand, it starts with the online experience. And this online starting point is only going to continue to grow as a factor. As more and more people go mobile with their digital devices, as more and more technology becomes mobile, the importance of the online brand presence will become even more critical. Ensure it’s a good one.

Even if you know all about social media.  How can you use it to get ahead in your current marketing job?

Even if you know all about social media, how can you use it to hone your marketing? Easy. The strongest marketers I know use social media as highly sensitive eyes and ears; to magnify what consumers are doing, and to amplify what they’re talking about to each other. Looking and listening are among the most important things a company can do to ensure its brand offers something consumers want and need.

Social media sites are rife with what’s happening now and how people are reacting to it. Tuning in gives marketers the opportunity to be totally in touch with what’s going on and to become immediately aware of opportunities for their brands. With so much talk out there, marketers who use social media to become astute listeners are using it to its greatest advantage. Author, Thomas Friedman, told me that because of digital technology, “we’re all developing dogs’ eyes and ears.” The best marketers know it, and use their highly developed senses to sniff out what matters most to their brands, and to the people who use them.

You deal with a lot of brands on a regular basis.  What common mistakes do you see again and again when it comes to their current branding routines?

The most common mistakes I see companies make relative to branding are, more or less, aligned with the three most important rules of branding.

  1. First, a company’s promise might be wishy-washy, offer up nothing substantially different than its competitions’, or nothing that is relevant to me, or that it can articulate simply and clearly. For example, it’s hard to determine any good reason I should fly most airlines. Southwest, on the other hand, makes its promise clear, as does the Virgin brand, which leads me to believe it will be a cool experience (which it is).
  2. Second, many companies don’t ensure that its employees understand the promise being made to consumers. They don’t take the time, or make the appropriate effort, to instill the meaning of the brand experience in those who will be delivering it, from the engineers or product developers to the customer service reps, or the store personnel. They don’t get that a brand is a collection of voices and points of touch that must hang together as one. This, of course, leads to the third mistake.
  3. Third, the brand promise isn’t delivered consistently and eloquently from point to point. Consumers may have a wonderful brand experience online, but when they get to the store, or interact with someone on the phone, the brand promise falls apart. The best-in-class class brands ensure that every interaction is part of a whole, that every interaction dependably reinforces what the company wants people to think about its brand.

Allen P. Adamson is the author of BrandDigital: Simple Ways Top Brands Succeed in the Digital World and BrandSimple: How the Best Brands Keep it Simple and Succeed.  He is managing director of the New York office of Landor Associates, a WPP company, and one of the world’s leading strategic brand consulting and design firms, with 24 offices in 18 countries.  Allen has worked with some of the world’s leading organizations, overseeing branding efforts for clients such as Diageo, GE, PepsiCo, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, Sephora and Verizon. Allen has appeared on CNBC, Fox Business Network and on NBC’s Today show. He is often quoted in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Advertising Age, USA Today and Brandweek. Allen lives in New York City with his wife and two children.