What’s really on the minds of branding bigwigs? We rounded up four anonymous industry leaders to give us their unflinchingly honest thoughts.
1. Which companies get branding right?
Amazon is absolutely crushing it. Because they are risk tolerant—the team over there seems unafraid to try things. They’ve had more than their share of things that haven’t worked, but the successes are big and bold, and the customer is always first. —CMO
Apple, at its best, and Airbnb. The way they market is the future. But it’s more about products that are amazing and full of wonder. Marketing can make me feel that more, but it can’t fix a crappy product. —CCO 1
Oreo and Taco Bell. They have very cheeky, authentic people working those Twitter and Instagram accounts. I like when brands feel like actual humans I want to hang with—where the tweet hasn’t gone through three [tiers] of approval. Another one is Oprah and Weight Watchers. It’s personal, authentic: “I struggle with my weight and this is what I do. I’m putting my money where my mouth is.” That’s not a spokesperson, it’s a real persona we know and love. It’s no longer just a celebrity. It’s Oprah saying, “I struggle with it, so I bought 10% of the company and this is how I roll.” —CEO
2. Which brands are underrated?
Converse. It used to be 100% a sports brand, but it has become synonymous with music, fashion, and street style around the world. They really found the groove to what that brand is all about. It’s just one of the coolest brands around, even though that company was once on its deathbed. —CCO 1
In-N-Out Burger. They’ve managed to create this incredible cult following without much advertising at all. It’s just been through the quality of their food and the simplicity of their brand. It’s a direct contrast to, say, what McDonald’s is doing, which is trying to be everything to everybody. As a fast-food company, that’s impossible. In-N-Out is just who they are, and that’s refreshing. —CCO 2
I’m a true Apple fan, but I feel like the brand is still running on a lot of juice they had based on the things Steve Jobs created. He created something that knew what it stood for and who its enemy was. As a brand, I don’t feel that from Apple anymore. They’ve lost their spirit and that sense of who they’re for and against. To me, the advertising is getting soft. It feels like a typical big company. But there are a lot of great and talented people there. The reason I say they’re overrated is partly because of the incredibly high standard they set for themselves for so long. —CCO 1
BMW is one that stands out to me. When you compare them to other luxury cars like Audi or Tesla, BMW doesn’t really stand for anything. I admire what Tesla and Audi are doing because they care about the world we live in, the environment, and it just seems they know their audience in a way that’s more sophisticated. —CCO 2
Shake Shack. It’s a fucking burger. The burger IPOs? Are you kidding me? —CEO
4. What branding mistakes do companies make?
One unhealthy thing our industry does is that we’re like 5-year-olds playing soccer: We see something and then all go after the ball at the same time. It makes me crazy. Part of what you need to do in marketing, while being mindful of whoever the audience is, is to sometimes zig when others zag. You don’t want to be the second or third brand to do something—you want to be the first. —CMO
I really hate when brands try to use a cause they don’t really care about as an ad. You’re seeing a lot of companies use causes in some way. —CEO
We’re in this do-good economy right now. Everyone’s trying to do these socially aware ads, embracing social causes. I think that’s great on one hand, but the flip side is that something like [Pepsi’s widely mocked Kendall Jenner ad] can happen. If it’s not authentic to the brand and company, then consumers will call you out on it. Consumers have a bullshit meter. People will call you out if it’s not authentic. —CCO 2
5. Speaking of the botched Pepsi spot, how can brands avoid that kind of disaster?
Hire more diverse people. Not because you think you should, but because you genuinely want to hear what they have to say. Stop trying so hard. Just be what you are. Pepsi? You’re not saving the world: You’re sugar water! No, you’re not stopping race riots. —CEO
The echo of our own voices is dangerous. You need contrary voices in the room when you make big creative decisions, or any decisions. I just think [the ad] seemed like a point of view that was tone-deaf to the world around it. In general, violent agreement is usually unhealthy. —CMO
It’s actually pretty simple. They made such a fundamental error. Clients asked us during the election whether they should get political or not. The poop that Pepsi stepped in was trying to get political without earning any right to do it. —CCO 1
6. So should brands weigh in on social and political issues?
The reason to take a stand in these moments can be as much internal as external—when your employees are looking at you and asking, “What do we stand for?,” I believe it’s important to be thinking about what matters to your employees, your suppliers, and your entire business ecosystem, just as much as from a brand point of view. But if you do take a stand, you really need to be prepared to stand by it. —CMO
7. How can United Airlines win back customer trust after its recent PR problems?
It’s an interesting question. You need to do something immediately. You can’t let it linger. You do need to apologize. I don’t know how they can still go with “Fly the Friendly Skies” in their marketing. It’s still there! I think they need to be very transparent in what they’re doing now, and then just start making extreme gestures to people, to make them feel that you’re empathetic and actually care. Also, given this news cycle, give it a month or two, and people forget. People will still buy that cheap plane ticket. —CCO 1
They just went way too long without admitting it was wrong and that they were sorry. I think people are pretty good about offering up forgiveness if you just admit you’re wrong, but a lot of times companies have a hard time doing that. —CCO 2
Their response showed a lack of empathy. It was corporate. It wasn’t human. But my suspicion is, after a year, many people won’t remember if it was United or Delta or American. There are brands that never recover, but I don’t think United will be one of them. If they start to delight customers unexpectedly, to treat things with extra levels of humanity, they can recover well. If I were there, I’d focus on the culture, and empowering my front-line employees to go the extra 10 miles. I wouldn’t be worried about ads or marketing. I’d triple down on superb customer service. —CMO
8. What are the major challenges for marketers right now?
There are so many new platforms and different consumer behaviors, all of it changing so quickly. Just keeping up with who your consumer is and where they are in social is a challenge. You have to spend a lot of time on that. You can’t just make a TV ad and post it on Facebook, then another version on Twitter, another on Instagram, and, and, and . . . . It doesn’t work that way. You need to know who you’re talking to, where they are, and tailor your advertising to that. —CCO 2
People are starting to talk a lot more about challenges around voice. What will brands look like in a more voice-oriented world? In a world of Alexa and Google Home and chatbots, what’s the role of brand? That’s a really, really interesting question, and a challenge for us all. Is there a post-logo world there? It’s just so interesting to think that the visual world may become less important, and what that means. I think things are going to become more auditory. What does an auditory cue sound like for a brand? —CMO
Being relevant. [Laughs] There’s nothing better than word of mouth and organic marketing. You’re not needed that much, dude! I think marketers should be nervous. There are so many agencies that should just . . . die. All these useless barnacles that have been living on the ass of major brands should just be lanced. —CEO
Marketing’s biggest challenge now is to understand that we shouldn’t be going at people with what we sell, we should be telling them what we believe in. Get them to buy into your brand by understanding what it stands for. Some brands are good at it; most aren’t. There’s an industry built around helping people avoid ads. That should tell you something. —CCO 1