The Wide and the Narrow of it

What can the 20th century tell us about 21st century brand building?

We are spotlighting some of the best essays from our MIPA qualifying courses and qualifications. Here, Wunderman Thompson's Omar El-Gammal asks whether we should be looking Wide and Narrow as well as Long and Short as a part of the IPA Excellence Diploma.

Colson Whitehead’s debut novel, The Intuitionist, is a story of a war between two guilds of elevator inspectors (1999). The Intuitionists rely on meditation and instinct to “sense” the condition of elevators that need fixing. Their adversaries, the Empiricists, focus on hard data and literal mechanical failures to get results. You would be forgiven for thinking that this amusing story of ideological war is not about elevator inspectors, but about the many guilds we have in the business of brand building. The temptation is too sweet not to pick sides between “heroes and villains” of our industry – the cold war between long vs short, creativity vs data, and the many innocent bystanders caught in the middle pleading for ‘and’ not ‘or’ (Miller and Torode, 2019). Whitehead’s story of elevator inspectors draws further parallels, as the plot unfolds, with both guilds hunting for the perfect elevator. “What does the perfect elevator look like, the one that will deliver us from the cities we suffer now, these stunted shacks? We don't know because we can't see inside it, it's something we cannot imagine, like the shape of angels' teeth. It's a black box.” (Whitehead 1999 pp. 61). So as the professionals in our industry float from conference to conference in search of our ‘black box’, the debate rages on – we have so many new tools in the era of 21st century brand building, is there anything at all we can learn from the past?

It is very hard to argue that there is little to learn from the 20th century. One of the most rigorous studies of how brands are built effectively is ‘The Long and the Short of it’, using cases from as far back as the 1980s to derive learnings that are as relevant today as they were back then (Binet and Field, 2013). While ‘The Long and the Short of it’ has given the industry invaluable insight into how to grow brands and drive profit, it is only a portion of a much bigger picture. The danger we face when marketing theory is broken down into such a binary view is that we oversimplify our approach of building brands to a view “not made for the real world” (Cole, 2019).

Somehow the debate of long vs short has often been reduced to a debate of traditional vs new media, brand-building vs activation and many other false dichotomies. Many today would argue that these principles are based on an old-world view of how brands are built. The very 60:40 budget split proposed by Binet and Field has somehow suffered the interpretation that brands are built predominantly through paid media, whether long or short term. Neil Barrie argues that brands in the 21st century are built differently and can now rapidly scale by tapping into drivers like community and technology (2019).

To free ourselves from the limitations of this binary worldview, we need to remind ourselves that the way brands are built or grow has very little to do with communications at all - let alone bookable media budgets. In fact most of the moments that contribute to brand equity don’t even sit within the realm of the marketing department or report to the CMO (Barwise, 2015). John Grant will go as far as saying that brands are not born in marketing departments, they are inherited by them and licensed to them from the entrepreneurs that birthed them. (IPA Candidate, 2019). So as much as we can learn from the 20th century of marketing, there is so much more room to grow and explore.

A View for the 21st Century

If we are to grow successful brands in the 21st century we need to adopt a revised playbook and world view. In the Brand Innovation Manifesto, John Grant defines a brand as “a cluster of strategic cultural ideas” (2006). The implication of this definition is that a brand’s ingredients are as diverse as the cultural ingredients in which it sits, and that it is made of elements that are both shared (cultural) and personal (ideas) (Grant 2006). In an interview over a decade after penning it, Grant argues that the definition is more relevant than ever - that successful brands are not built by rigid communications plans, but rather by finding a role rooted in culture and bringing it to life by making “one mistake after another while pivoting along the way” (IPA Candidate 2019).

Alongside the strategies of growing brands in the long and short term, I’d like to argue that marketing professionals in the 21st century should also consider how they build brands Wide and Narrow.

Building ‘Wide’, I propose, is driving a brand’s meaning and equity through the power of shared and collective cultural moments.  Building ‘Narrow’ is defined as creating meaning and equity through the power of individual and personal customer experience.  Both of these definitions can impact how a brand grows in the short term as well as the long term. Yet by including this new dimension to how a marketer can manage and grow their brands, it forces us to consider a more complete picture of how brands grow in the 21st century.

Building Wide in the 21st Century

Much has been written about the importance of brands being rooted in culture. There are also countless definitions and debates about what we mean by ‘culture’. A useful way of looking at it is the classic dictionary definition: "The quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc." (Anon, 2019).  Culture is what drives our values, fashion, tastes, music and rituals – as well as the brands we use and what they say about us. It is anchored in how we feel but also in how a society operates.

This collective nature is what makes cultural marketing such a critical tool, in any century.  It drives our decision making process – “We use other people's brains to navigate the world: to acquire skills and practices, and to access knowledge systems of long-dead strangers.” (Earls, 2009). Any brand that is interested in scaling and growing will struggle to do so without building common knowledge around its own meaning and role in society. “Common knowledge exists amongst a group of people when everyone knows they know x, they all know that they know x, they all know that they all know that they know x, and so on (Price, 2018).

Yet building ‘Wide’ – or collective meanings and associations for your brand across shared moments - is about much more than merely buying reach. Marketers have been creating mass media campaigns that build long-term associations since the mid-20th century. The greatest opportunity to develop a competitive advantage for brands in the 21st century lies in culture’s rapid ability to constantly evolve and change. Cultural marketing allows brands to get ahead of changes and even participate in driving society.  Our tastes in music, fashion, the latest craze on TikTok or what society tells us to be outraged about on Twitter today is arguably more fluid than it has ever been. Culture constantly shapes society because it is grounded in the changes we want to make, whether it be the #MeToo movement or witnessing the feat that a runner can complete a marathon in under 2 hours. When brands authentically ingrain themselves in these cultural moments of change, they can gain a significant competitive advantage. 

Bumble has created cultural relevance, and a valuation of over $1b in a span of a few years, by offering a purpose-driven feminist approach to online-dating and through a number of different activities driven by engaging their community over the years (Barrie, 2019). Nike has captured the imagination of millions who have tuned in to watch Eliud Kipchoge break through the ultimate runner’s wall in their ‘Breaking2’ and then again more recently in Vienna. Nike had also created an entire activation around ‘Breaking2’ allowing people to fly and stay in Italy to witness this historic cultural moment. (, 2019). Grant spoke of the belief that “all successful cultural products tend to have a number of cultural ideas working for them” (2006). Breaking2 is quite different to Nike driving participation of its community with its Nike Run Clubs via its NRC app – another example of how you can build brands Wide.

Where do activities like these sit in the old playbooks of how brands are built? How about when Burger King ran a promotion, the Whopper Detour (YouTube, 2019), to drive McDonalds’ customers to Burger King to avail of a promotional Whopper? In many cases, they are ‘activations’ that look to elicit behavior and participation – but they also build long term associations by being rooted in wider shared moments. Are they long or short? Do they sit in the ‘60’ or the ‘40’ side of the optimum budget split? The lines are not as clear any more, but the opportunities to build Wide in the 21st century are endless as we have many more tools to be able to do so, at scale, than ever before. Building Wide is a useful opportunity in any marketer’s playbook and, while it can benefit from paid media, it can also live beyond the traditional 60:40 split.

Building Narrow in the 21st Century

Communications, cultural moments, activations, and other tools at our disposal can contribute significantly to building a common knowledge of what a brand stands for. Yet customer experience is as important (if not more so) to a brand, as it makes up much more of a brand’s equity (Barwise, 2015). Despite that new techy ‘X’ in it, CX has been around a long time and just about “all brands, throughout history, have depended on experiences delivered through paid, earned or owned channels” (Feldwick, 2019). Daniel Kahneman wrote about the importance of ‘experience as memory’ how the mind encodes experiences through a conflict of interest between ‘two selves’: the ‘experience self’ and the ‘remembering self’ (1974 pp. 378-381). While the ‘experience self’ participates in specific moments, the ‘remembering self’ encodes the experience as a whole. One tiny bad moment in an experience has the potential of ‘ruining the whole thing’ and leaving a bad taste in people’s minds.

While experience used to play a much more dominant role in service brands like supermarkets, than products like lager (Duckworth, 1996), we are now witnessing more and more manufacturers engaging with their customers as a service. With multiple apps, from running to training to ‘Sneakrs’, brands like Nike are increasingly talking to ‘users’ not customers. As we increasingly shift to online purchase journeys, this trend could only rise. Which brings me to the critical point that just as brands in the 21st century need to consider building ‘Wide’, they also need to consider the value in building ‘Narrow’.

Specifically, there is an opportunity to create meaning and equity through the power of individual and personal customer experience. Brands that have done it well have capitalized on opportunities to grow. Specifically, ‘customer experience leaders’ outperform the stock of S&P 500 brands by 26% (Dawson and McCann, 2019). Conversely, in the same study, ‘customer experience laggards’ underperform the S&P 500 by a whopping 54%.  

It is clear that customer experience is not a new element in how brands are built in both the long and short term. It has largely been overlooked as a part of a marketer’s arsenal, however, for multiple reasons. To begin with, the budget to spend on experience is an entirely different ballgame than your average marketing budget. Companies currently invest as much as 5 times the amount on customer experience than they do on communications/marketing (James, 2019). That budget also comes from an entirely different pot – in accounting terms, it is from the ‘capital budget’ not ‘operational budget’ (James, 2019). The reason this happens is that most companies see investment in CX as an opportunity to cut costs and create efficiencies, rather than creating value by building long-term brand equity and delivering business growth (Dawson and McCann, 2019). It is also “intrinsically hard to measure and diffuse in nature”, while being “delivered by different functions in the business, meaning knowledge ends up living in siloes” (Dawson and McCann, 2019).

By understanding that brands can increasingly be built ‘Narrow’ in the 21st century, we can begin to adopt new ways to measure the value of experience to brands, in the long and short term. A study by Neil Dawson and Mike McCann begins to tackle this issue by measuring three key metrics: Experience Stock, which looks at the memorability of experience quality and utility; Reputation Stock which consider how much a brand is talked about and drives customer sentiment; and finally Brand Delta which measures the ability for brand to attract new users (2019). Failure to understand the importance of building positive Narrow experiences for a brand leads to the risk of what Ramzi Yakob calls ‘Experience Debt’ (2019). Yakob has defined Experience Debt as “the costs that you create, when you knowingly make compromised experiences available to your customers without due care and consideration” (2019).

Starting with the right metrics and tools, marketers can finally have the conversations we need to with parts of the business that don’t sit within marketing - yet disproportionately impact the equity of the brands we manage. Customer experience deserves to sit within the the same debates we have around long and short term objectives. The budgets that we use to manage brands should go beyond the 60:40 split of paid media and begin to redeploy what was previously defined as ‘capital budget’.

While building ‘Narrow’ may sound like I am proposing customer experiences as superior to ‘the old playbook’, that is not at all my intention. As Paul Feldwick rightfully says, “if ‘brand experience’ becomes a fashionable buzzword that distracts marketers from fundamental truths [of how brands have always been built], it risks doing more harm than good” (2019). Building Narrow is meaningless unless you are able to scale, not just in reach, but to the collective. Which is why I am proclaiming myself as one of the many bystanders in the middle of this cold ideological war we speak of, pleading for the use of ‘and’, not ‘or’.

A new way of seeing

Claiming that brands in the 21st century have little to learn from the lessons of the past is preposterous. There is everything to learn from the 20th century. Yet there is also so much to explore and learn from what the modern era offers us. We do not need an entirely new rule book with new lessons for modern times.

What we need is a new way of seeing what we already know. A new way of understanding what we are yet to discover. The 21st century offers us so many new tools and lenses by which to see and explore – whether we want to look back and better understand the past, or forwards to create the future. Just as we should be looking to build brands Long and Short, we must also consider how brands grow in the Wide and Narrow. Our approach to budgeting and measurement also needs to adapt and take into account a new world view of how brands are built and grow.

Regardless of which side of the debate you fall - whether you believe the 20th century offers us invaluable lessons or is full of limitations and disrupted businesses that will soon go extinct - I draw your attention back to our paralleled story of tiresome elevator inspectors at war.  In their quest to discover the ‘black box’ the perfect elevator, there is a key moment of wisdom. “It is failure that guides evolution; perfection provides no incentive for improvement, and nothing is perfect. Nothing we create works the way it should.” (Whitehead, 1999 pp. 38).

Omar El-Gammal is Planning Director at Wunderman Thompson. This essay earned a distinction as a part of the IPA Excellence Diploma.

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Last updated 17 April 2024