Advertising’s identity crisis.
Building a brand and selling its products are different propositions.
The meaning of words changes over time. The original Old English meaning of awful was ‘reverential wonder’ - it derived from ‘being full of awe’. In 1077, pilgrims marvelling at the then-new Canterbury Cathedral possibly described it as awful. My dog-eared Collins English Dictionary defines advertising as: “the act or practice of calling public attention to one's product, service, need, etc., esp. by paid announcements in newspapers and magazines, television, or radio, on billboards, etc”.
Apart from the archaic list of paid media, the definition of ‘calling public attention’ is also outdated. Over the last few decades the blurring of advertising, retail and media has meant that the term advertising is used to describe an increasingly broad range of activities.
In the twentieth century, many consumer brands were B2B only - they sold their products wholesale to retailers who then made the sale to the consumer. In this context, consumer brand advertising was predominantly focused on brand building. Making a brand desirable for consumers made it desirable for retailers. Consumer brand advertising didn’t make direct sales, it made making sales easier and more lucrative. Advertising was a development investment that contributed value and differentiation to the product.
Now, in the twenty-first century, many consumer brands have a B2C component. Consumer brand advertising has shifted its focus from brand building to closing sales. Today, retail channels are also media channels, media channels are also retail channels and advertising is also sales. Many consumer brands no longer have a CMO and if they have someone with that title the role is now responsible for sales and advertising (in that order). The pressure on advertising investment has always been to prove ROI, with direct attribution of sales to ads the job might seem to be done.
Meanwhile, brands are lamenting a serious decline in brand loyalty. I’m not surprised. As brands concentrate on advertising as a sales conversion tool they diminish the ability of advertising to build brands. Without constant care and reinforcement, the meaning of brands that have been built over decades can, like the words in our dictionaries, radically change. Today, most advertising is awful in the modern sense of the word - to build brands people desire advertising must become awful in the Old English sense.