by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

It seems that the resolve of the top marketers collected at last weekend's 98th meeting of the Association of National Advertisers was simple: defend brand budgets at all costs, and keep spending.

In other words, iceberg be damned.

The idea that big names can (let alone should) afford to keep spending on branding nonsense in a down market is as utterly wrong as it's intoxicatingly simple. Yet head-honcho after expert guru got up before an audience of all those first-class passengers and declared that the challenges of the market demanded that they not "shy away" or “walk to the ledge." It seems that recommitting to spending on branding could actually shorten the recession.

Yet the ship has already hit the iceberg.

Trust in companies is at an all-time low, as are most measures of customer satisfaction. Consumer loyalty is a fleeting commodity defined more by price-cuts than any added-value patronag. Brand marketers have been in a tizzy for a while now, madly struggling to find ways to re-establish the links to consumers that used to be called "brand equity." Every imaginary or convoluted measure of brand ROI has enabled us to do little more than narrate a process that has ever-less to do with actual behaviors or reliable predictions of future sales.

And the best the experts can do is tell one another do keep doing more of the same?

It's partially the fault of the English language; the top marketers can all talk about substance, focus, and urgency, but the definitions of how those terms are applied are anything but commonly defined. When they, or anybody, talk about brands, it's highly unlikely that any two people share a clear sense of what it means. 

So when Interbrand sings the praises of brands being "strong," is it a reference to an ability to prompt purchases more often, for more money, and to do so more reliably than, say, another brand name? Pillsbury's reported new branding campaign, entitled "Home is calling," might be about getting consumers to think or feel good things about eating at home, or, maybe promote cooking that includes its products? 

Everybody knows that branding is cosmically important, which means nobody really knows how or why.

It's all a bunch of gloriously intelligent and useless nonsense, coming from a collection of experts who should be daring themselves -- and the entire industry -- to think radically and dangerously differently about brands and branding.

Because the ship is already sinking.

What a perfect time to announce to the world that today's economic crisis is a call-to-action for marketers to challenge their very assumptions. 

The conference could have focused not on pleas to preserve budgets (and, thus, jobs and perks), but rather explored specific ways to make advertising more relevant, compelling, and necessary to business strategy...which would involve redefining not just what gets put into it and why, but also where and when it's placed, and who within the organization needs to be involved in the process.

But alas, no. 

Instead, the leaders redoubled their commitment to defending themselves against the heightened push-back that they normally get on their budgets. If reasonable people could question the wisdom of spending money on something abstract like "the brand" in a good economy, they're going to complain more so now that things are bad. 

So lock 'em up in the hold below deck, and fire up the orchestra!

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