You Cannot Advertise Your Way To Greatness

In a recent article published in one of those advertising industry publications, the CMO of a rather large bank was quoted as saying:

We want to become an iconic brand that people love.”

And I want to be the starting quarterback of the New England Patriots and have beautiful models throw themselves at me.

And you know what? I think I have a better chance of achieving my fantasy, than the bank CMO does of achieving his/hers.

The CMO went on to say “Through ongoing brand tacking, we know we always outperform our peers when it comes to being emotionally relevant to people. The new campaign gives us a unique opportunity to talk about who we are.”

(Note: I’m pretty sure that should be “brand tracking”, but I cut and paste it from the article, so if it is wrong, it’s not my typo).

Note to CMO: Nobody cares who you are. To become an iconic brand that people love, it takes a lot more than a new ad campaign.

You cannot advertise your way to greatness.

Sure, some iconic brands — Apple and Nike, for instance — have memorable advertising campaigns that build on, support, or enhance their iconicosity.

But when you look at those firms, there’s something else that helps them achieve high iconicosity. In Apple’s case it’s customers who are really into computer-aided graphics and design, and in Nike’s case it’s athletes and aspiring athletes.

What does a bank have? Checking account fanatics? Bill pay aficionados? Even if the bank in question here had the greatest customer service in the world, guess what? I want to do business with a bank where I don’t need service, where I don’t need to talk to them in the first place. And I’m not alone.

The financial services firm that comes closest to achieving iconic status is USAA. What’s their tag line? Where’s their multi-gazillion ad campaign? You don’t know and they don’t have one.

USAA achieved its status over a period of many years by systematically and strategically investing in a set of capabilities to execute on a well-thought out, well-understood strategy.

I bet that if you asked 10 different senior execs at the above CMO’s bank what the bank’s strategy is, and what capabilities they need to build to execute that strategy, you’d get 10 different answers.

You cannot advertise your way to greatness.

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13 thoughts on “You Cannot Advertise Your Way To Greatness

  1. Ron, I knew you weren’t a quarterback with the Pats, but beautiful models don’t throw themselves at you??? (Come on, I have a hard time believing that.)

    I love USAA.

    USAA gives me what I want, how I want it, at the price I want. Then when everything is setup, they don’t harangue me, screw me over, or jerk me around. If I have a question, I get answers. Fast. Most of the time, as you say, “I don’t need service… I don’t need to talk to them in the first place.” Woo hoo!

    No, you are not alone.

  2. I agree 110%. Having read much of the literature on branding and Apple, I am always amused when I read those new to Apple about how/why they are a great and cool brand. It’s NOT because Apple products look beautiful and modern. It’s because Apple products perform incredibly well. I’ve been an Apple user since even before the Mac was introduced in 1984. And throughout that time, I’ve loved Apple because it lets me get my work done, instead of having to trouble shoot the computer. Apple has always had very solid hardware, and fantastic integration of intuitive software from the customer’s perspective. I love the latest Mac ad that explains that the fastest Windows Vista laptop is a Mac. (the Misprint ad) The brand has become iconic because they’ve stuck to their guns, building innovative, solid products. It’s certainly not through advertising which has never fully captured what it is that makes Apple special.

  3. @Ron: For all I know you just invented the word “iconicosity”, but dammit, I’m adding it to my spellcheck.

    @Morriss: I agree with your point that Apple wins fans for performing well, but there are also a LOT of ipod (etc.) owners out there who bought one for no other reason than how it looks. I know plenty of them personally. They didn’t care about performance, specs, usability, service quality, etc., and had never bought an Apple product before. They were just interested in how it looked. Pure style over substance.

    By the way, these people all seem to listen to top40 radio and watch MTV, which I’m pretty sure reinforces my point somehow…

  4. Ron – you could make a strong argument that Nike, in fact, DID advertise themselves to greatness. Are their shoes any better than Reebok? Adidas? Absolutely not. They did, however, have the marketing forsight to sign a young Michael Jordan to promote their products. They created an image that was better than the competition. They did it with advertising. Without Michael Jordan in the early 80’s, Nike would be just another Converse.

  5. @Matt: Advertising did play a huge role in Nike’s success. However, without: 1) a customer/prospect base with a strong emotional connection to the product category (sports), and 2) cooler products than the competition (Converse sold those Chuck Taylor sneakers for what, 60 years?) — Nike’s ads would have been nothing more than entertaining ads.

  6. Great post, Ron! And I think you DID create a couple new words in this one. Loved it and added this one to our great links for the week. Next time I see a beautiful model, I’ll ask her to throw herself at you. I think it can happen! : )

  7. This reminds me of a study that I took issue with from Forrester last year called “the customer experience index”:,7211,43877,00.html

    One of the “major” findings was that Retailers provide better online customer experiences than Banks and Insurers.

    However, one of the 3 key criteria used to determine companies’ customer experience index scores was “Enjoyability.” … I don’t know about the rest of’s readers — but I for one pretty much always enjoy buying stuff from retailers online more than I do paying for it later on my bank’s web site! So I thought it was unfair for Forrester to use the same criteria for creating an online customer experience index across all industries…

    … I think you are absolutely right Ron — the key in the FI industry isn’t about creating some sort of vague “emotional connection” through “iconic” mass advertising. It’s about creating a user experience that mirrors a well thought out, well executed strategy:

    I have a savings account through ING because it was quick and easy to set up, offers nice interest, and has remained easy-as-pie to transfer funds into and out of. (read: ease-of-use and convenience). I found out about ING b/c a friend fwded me an email to set one up – and he spurred on by ING to do so when they shrewedly promised to pay their customers $25 deposits for each friend who signs up.

    I’ve got a Chase account for my checking — and fortunately live in a city where I can withdraw funds from one of their ubiquitous branches that are all over this city, including ATM machines inside every Duane Reade. (read: ease of use and convenience).

    I’ve been a loyal customer of both for years and never have had to call either of them. Probably have stood in line for a live teller no more than 5 times in the last 10 years. And I have absolutely ZERO idea what either of their taglines is nor any recollection of any of their ads.

  8. @Gens?: Do NOT get me started on that FORR report, or that bogus index score. Oh wait — you’re ALREADY got me started.

    But you allude to something that few FIs seem to understand — that they might achieve iconic status not by advertising, and not by providing superior customer service, but by delivering an experience that never required service in the first place.

  9. Amen! Here is the truest test of the longevity of a brand – employee retention. If employees don’t like working there, then chances are that customers won’t like shopping there. And, as you said, no amount of advertising can fix this. Nicely done!

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  11. I beg to disagree with you Ron. CMO saying they want to be an iconic brand is not advertising but its vision dissipation. It is very important for any company to inform their vision to all the stake holders, be it consumers, investors or employees.

    Read blogs from Avinash Kaushik and Eric Peterson, you will see a lot of good words for themselves. Are they wrong? Or is it hurting them? NO.
    Actually people love these things. It is often called Optimism and Positive Energy.

    One of my friend once said, he hates ICICI Bank for its color, its Red. He says it gives the same distraction as Yahoo, which is why he uses Citibank and Google, where both of these companies use more white and little blue. He argues that sobre color gives good feel for the eyes.

    I thought, he had a point but again. There are many successful brands that are Red like Kingfisher, Vodafone, Airtel, Virgin etc. So is there problem with showing your aggression out? Answer is NO. It is just the way people do business.

    So I stand by the CMO words that you have shown. He has his way and may be that way pays well.


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