Caley Cantrell, professor at the VCU Brandcenter, an award-winning graduate program in advertising, talks about the importance of consistency, why "one size does not fit all", and the future of the 30 second spot.

July 2012

Think with Google: What do you see as the core principles of branding?

Caley Cantrell: Great brands are clear on what territory they want to own and then communicate that very well. The better companies make sure the employees are communicated to just as strongly as the consumer buying public. I would venture to say that JetBlue spends just as much time and bandwidth making sure they are satisfying their employees from a brand standpoint as much as their customers.

Consistency is important, almost critical. Starbucks is great at being consistent. You can feel very confident that if you were to walk into a Starbucks in Boston or Beijing, that you would "know" how it worked, regardless of whether you spoke the language.

I think successful brands like Coke or Volkswagen are smart about staying abreast of culture at large and factoring social changes into their awareness of their audience. This can enable them to keep their messaging consistent, yet extremely timely.

TwG: Have these principles changed in the digital age?

CC: I don't think the core principles have changed, but I do think deploying them has gotten more complicated. Some of that has to do with the changes or amplifications of consumer behavior by the Internet. Some of it is understanding the different ways your brand might behave in an ever-expanding set of points of contact with people.

If you expect folks to "show up to your brand" in a digital channel, you need to think about how the brand should live and present itself there. I believe many companies are wrestling with whether their company or brand should have a blog. If we do, who does it come from, what does it "sound" like and what should we talk about? I think there are solid companies, like Percolate, that are working to help companies figure out these sorts of issues.

I think one constant in brand building is that "one size does not fit all". Digital may appear "easy." But just because I drive a car doesn't mean I know how to build one. Pick the places your brand makes sense and concentrate and capitalize on those before signing up for the next thing. Every flag you plant in the digital space needs to be followed by the question "and what do we do when people start showing up". Because they will. Maybe once. Maybe twice. But not more than that if you don't make it worth their while.

Brands like Coke or Volkswagen are smart about staying abreast of culture at large and factoring social changes into their awareness of their audience. This can enable them to keep their messaging consistent, yet extremely timely.

TwG: Is the 30 second spot as important as it used to be?

CC: I feel like we've been in this movie before. TV will kill radio. Cable will kill network TV. The internet will kill print first and then it will take TV down too. First, I think this question underestimates the general public's ability to "on board" with more than one communication channel. And I think it suggests that a :30 spot is only a :30 spot if it plays on TV. There are plenty of :30 spots living quite happily on YouTube and Hulu and any number of other digital placements. A :30 spot is a great device for telling a story, delivering a message, offering a demonstration. So I don't think it's diminished in importance from that perspective. Maybe the question is really "Is it important for a :30 spot to always be on TV?"

TwG: Who is doing a great job of brand building through digital?

CC: Obviously, Wieden & Kennedy did a great job of successfully using YouTube for Old Spice. Some might say that is executional, some might say it's brand building. Zappos has been building a great brand in the digital space for some time. It offers exceptional shopping utility on their site, advances internal and external culture and relationships via Twitter, and has nice engagement and customer interaction via Facebook .

TwG: Is digital behavior a tactical consideration or a fundamental one? How can companies best embrace it?

CC: I will go out on a limb and say that I think it will develop, if it hasn't already, into something that is fundamental. I might say that decline in basic writing skills is attributable in some part to email and texting. I think the 24/7/365 news cycle has sped up what we talk about, increased what we "know about" and changed what gets and holds our attention. So things of that nature, borne out of digital, affect how we go to market, how we tell stories and where stories and message show up in order to offer utility or entertainment or intersect with that moment in a person's day when a brand message might be most appropriate.

TwG: Is there a division between 'digital' and 'social'? Is it made up or reality? Is it marketing jargon?

CC: Not sure I can give you a defacto answer. What I think might be happening, and maybe this is only a demarcation that exists in the advertising and marketing community, is that "social" is the more spontaneous or "human" side of the internet. Facebook, Twitter, Yelp and the like are the places we show up to be social, to communicate, to share, to do word of mouth, to recommend and so on... Maybe we are finding that what brands do there doesn't necessarily have to be "owned" by a digitally born and bred agency, or that tweets could as easily be written by the copywriter as the content strategist. I'm starting to see job titles for Social Strategist and Content Strategist, and that does seem borne out of the Facebook and blog side of the channel versus the website world. Is social a separate field entirely or just a subset? I'm not sure yet.

TwG: We talk about organizations giving up control over their brands to consumers and the communities around them. At the same time, brands need to know what they stand for, to have a core set of values, to be consistent and clear in their communications.... Aren't these opposing forces? How do you strike a balance?

CC: I think we need to make a distinction between a brand wanting its audience to actively participate with it, and the fact that brands are experiencing direct consumer to brand dialog. Doritos really wants consumers to make Super Bowl spots for them. Netflix probably didn't want consumers to complain in such large numbers that they had to reverse product, pricing and policy changes.

I think the key issue is the phrase "giving up control." It is natural to think that delegation is about giving up control. Not true! By carefully selecting whom you delegate to, you can insure that work gets done the way you would do it yourself. So, it stands to reason that if a brand demonstrates very clearly who and what they are, they will attract a certain audience who find that brand appealing. Ideally, those values will transfer to the community that gets built up around the brand.