Brand proposition

8 minutes estimated reading time

The brand proposition is what fires creative thinking in advertising and the bane of junior planners. In fact, the brand proposition is a topic of conversation for advertising planners, in the same way that the weather is for British and Irish people. It is a source of endless debate and discussion.

Firstly, let’s discuss what’s a brand?

Kit-Kat Japanese packaging

How you define brand would likely come down to two camps. Those that broadly agree with either of two statements that branding:

  • Is the act of creating a name, symbol or design that identifies and differentiates a product or service from others
  • Is the art of aligning what you want people to think about your company, with what people actually think about your company

The second option is closer to where my viewpoint would be, but neither are completely right or wrong. Brands have various attributes including:

  • Brand / customer relationships
  • Brand personality
  • Country of origin
  • Emotional benefits
  • Organisational associations
  • Self-expressive benefits
  • Symbols
  • User imagery

Product specific attributes that affect brand

  • Scope
  • Attributes
  • Uses
  • Quality / value
  • Functional benefits

JWT London’s seminal planning guide said that a brand’s appeal is built up over time by three different sorts of appeal

  • Appealing to the senses: feel, smell, tastes, sounds or looks
  • Appeals to reason: function, when would you use it, what does it contain, how does it perform
  • Appeals to the emotions: the brand style or nature, brand associations, what mood it evokes or satisfies, any psychological rewards for usage

How does planning come into it?

What’s a brand planner?

“The account planner is that member of the agency’s team who is the expert, through background, training, experience, and attitudes, at working with information and getting it used – not just marketing research but all the information available to help solve a client’s advertising problems.” 

Stanley Pollitt

The JWT Planning Guide, which can be considered to be the stone tablets of account planning as a profession were handed down written in 1974.

The planning guide said

… any systemic approach to planning advertising has to do more than simply provide controls and disciplines. It must actively stimulate imagination and creativity too.

PLANNING GUIDE (March 1974). United Kingdom: J Walter Thompson (JWT) London.

Ok, that’s quite a big ask. But it didn’t stop there. The ideal advertising planning methods had to also fulfil four criteria

  • Realistic – based on ‘best practice’ and must be capable of being optimised and evolved.
  • Pragmatic – They must work to help people create advertising that is relevant and creative. Simple in nature, memorable and easy to follow
  • Fundamental – based on ‘coherent theories’ of how advertising benefits marketing, how communications works, how people collaborate productively and create new ideas
  • Structured – set a sand pit that imagination can work in. Chunking complexity down to simple elements and providing regular evaluation of work done
Kit-Kat Japanese packaging

Brand proposition

Realistic, pragmatic, fundamental and structured dictate the shape and form of a planner’s tools and outputs. And sometimes we lose sight of this, which is very much the case with the brand proposition.

A definition

A brand proposition could be considered to be the foundational concept that highlights the unique identifying features of your brand.

Attributes of a good brand proposition

A good brand proposition will be:

  • Single-minded in purpose and being succinct – which can be a pain the 🍑
  • Almost, but not quite an endline
  • Interesting / thought provoking
  • An ongoing investment
  • Occasionally multiple – creative briefs are as much a dialogue with your creative director as they are the product of the heroic lone planner. Having multiple ways in is a good way of doing that, and there might be multiple insights that don’t easily reconcile with each other
  • Open to evolution – its more important to be interesting than correct, it is unlikely that you will get it right first time

Rich nuggets, stimuli, creative brief delivery and post-brief discussion

The brand proposition is a small part of the overall account planners contribution to the creative process. You could consider it a sub-set of the insightful ‘rich nuggets’ – the behavioural observations in a creative brief, which is about a quarter of the strategists contribution. Every bit of a brief that a planner writes should have these rich nuggets in it. Examples of rich nuggets that I have had in my career as a planner

  • Even in a digital world, people get annoyed and can be spurred into action when they find their mail has been opened
  • After mental health, consumers care most about having a healthy immune system. It came to fore during COVID and seems to have remained with us
  • Glow, the look of healthy skin due to a moist top layer of the skin can sell products in many markets. But it doesn’t work well in high-humidity tropical, and sub-tropical clients
  • A majority of Hong Kong beauty consumers would prefer not to interact with concession staff, they consider them to be closer to over-pushy sales people than trusted advisors
  • A majority of primary care practitioners (GPs) feel a degree of disgust when they see an obese patient
  • Chinese luxury hotel guests are likely to be younger and less formally dressed than the older western and Japanese clientele – with a dress sense that somewhat harks back to the mix-and-match approach of the Buffalo Collective

The other three quarters are:

  • The quality of stimulus that the planner provides – Stimulus for consumer brands might be much more visual than say prescription medicines where science facts and sandboxes of regulatory restrictions could be much more important. There is usually a good deal of discussion that goes into help writing this brief that helps filter which stimulus makes the cut and the emphasis placed on it.
  • Quality of delivery on the creative brief
  • Post-brief discussion

So the amount of ‘pain’ that junior planners have on the brand proposition is out of proportion to the brand proposition’s role in the planning process.

Criticisms of the brand proposition

Perceived solutions orientation

The brand proposition puts the emphasis on a potential answer; rather than the initial problem. And I can understand how this occurs. Going back to the JWT London Planning Guide:

Advertising involves producing a long series of unique solutions. Each piece of work requires innovation. Every script, every layout, every recommendation is Ian some way different from any that has gone before. Each client operates in a different market, and each brand in a market has different needs.

I would argue that yes the brand proposition can be perceived to be solution focused, but I’d also argue innovation means reframing and looking at a problem in a different way – this is much of the success behind Eno & Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies.

Brand proposition locks the planner in to a certain perspective

The idea is that the very act of writing a brand proposition locks the planner in to a certain perspective and consequently starts making the process of developing ideas territorial and creates unhelpful barriers.

I can see where the ‘lone heroic planner’ mode might kick in. I found it happened when I was freelancing in a team made up of freelance creative talent and there wasn’t any ‘connective tissue’ in the team.

I think that a planner needs to be humble enough to recognise that:

  • They don’t have a monopoly on good ideas
  • They are humble enough to recognise better ideas were ever they may come from
  • They are constantly in searching mode

Perceived traditional media focus

Propositions are considered by some to encourage to think in ‘traditional media’ by asking what should we say rather than

  • What might we do?
  • What experience might we create
  • What interaction might we host

My argument against this point-of-view is that its a very literal interpretation of ‘say’. If we think about person to person communication about 70 percent is non verbal cues. And I would argue that more experiential aspects fall into what we say.

Secondly, it depends on where you are in the process. For instance in many of the assignments I worked on as a freelancer, the channel had already been defined by the client and or the media agency partner who was further upstream in the decision making process.

A brief for Unilever’s Dove specified that they wanted a 30-second TV spot and online video clip. It has to contain an end ‘pour and pack shot’ which took another 5 seconds at the end of the video. For the online video clip you had to have the brand logo up front. This is very common when you are working on creating marketing assets for international markets.

OK, why Japanese KitKats?

They have one uniform brand proposition behind them, but a whole variant of different ways of solving it from a product and packaging design perspective. And, they’re really, really tasty. Japanese KitKats have the crispness I remember from my childhood eating Irish-made KitKats from the old Rowntree-Macintosh factory that was in Kilmainham, Dublin.