Brand properties: have ad agencies under-sold their worth?

Just Do It. Intel Inside. Because I’m Worth It. Fill it. Shut it. Forget it. There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else there’s Mastercard. Are they merely words strung together or clever word play? No, they are powerful, distinct brand properties which have contributed in creating brand preference (many in categories where genuine product differentiation is hard to come by) and hence driving purchase and loyalty.

Is the Air India Maharaja or the Amul Girl just mascots? Is the Titan signature, Airtel tune or Britannia’s audio mnemonic just notes of sound? All these and more are examples of distinct brand assets. How do these help build business? Let’s look at a couple of famous examples:

Because You’re Worth It

Coined in 1971 by Ilon Specht, a junior copywriter at McCann, New York it now celebrating its 50th anniversary by L’Oreal. It was created at a time when there was a stereotypical portrayal of women in advertising – doing chores, taking care of the family and dressing up for the husband.

The line has gone on to become a deep, universal, rallying cry for women and very importantly made a premium worth paying for. It has become part of popular culture and ‘believed in’ by celebrities, not just endorsed or mouthed as a dialogue. How would you place a value to its contribution to brand preference and growth?

Intel Inside: ingredient branding

Prior to the ‘Intel Inside’ campaign, Interl was unknown as a brand to end consumers. The OEMs knew of its technical capabilities and hence Intel did not see the need to ‘market’ it to end consumers. The PC market boomed in the 80s and with it the demand for processing power. With ‘Intel Inside’ personal computers (indistinguishable in terms of tech specifications otherwise) gathered an edge and were incentivised to adapt it as consumer demanded such ‘branded’ computers.


There are countless other design elements, tag lines, mascots, product shapes, audio mnemonics, brand mascots created by ad agencies which have helped imbue distinctiveness (leading to affinity and preference) to brands. Differentiation in product or service can be copied by competition easily and such an advantage lasts for a short period of time. However, as we saw with the case of ‘Live Richly’ from Citibank, distinctive brand assets can be a great competitive edge.

If such properties had been designed by specialist branding agencies (and we have seen examples of that) such as this one for Azerbaijan Tourism, they normally charge a hefty fee.

Ditto with a re-branding exercise such as this for Burger King or this for Heinz. But why don’t agencies command such a premium for invaluable properties & ideas they have created -which have stood the test of time and continue to pay dividends to the brand? I am not sure

I feel there are a host of factors at play for this:

Positioning: ad agencies have not quite managed to position themselves in the same bracket as specialist ‘branding’ agencies (such as Landor or Saffron Brand Consultants) or management & digital transformation consultants such as Accenture or Deloitte. As a result they don’t have an aura of specialists or access to the C-suite. The day-to-day interactions of an agency are with a relatively junior teams at the client’s marketing side and the discussions are likely to be focused on operational issues. As a result, the C-suite at the client side hardly meets the ad agency to discuss broad strategic issues – at least as often as they should.

Presentation of work: when in advertising, we were often called to create packaging design. The art director who designs press ads, posters and outdoor also designs the packs and is presented matter-of-factly with at least four options. In contrast, the specialist agency presents the rationale for the design approach, the idea based on consumer insight and the reason each why each element exists. The retainer fee paid to the agency is meant to cover such a ‘specialist’ design work, whereas the specialist agency’s work will be seen as a value add because they make an effort to ‘sell’ their efforts.

Undercutting & all-inclusive retainer fee: ever since the retainer fee system became default, agencies are vying with each other to offer their ‘everything’ cheaper than the next competitor. In this mode, even if a great brand property or idea is created there is little scope to charge the right price for it.

Can you imagine the ‘compensation’ the agency or the creator of ‘Just Do It’ would have got? Or the rewards for an agency which helped preference and sales through distinct brands assets? I guess it will simply be whatever is the agreed retainer fee with some bonus for meeting KRAs. The blame should lie on the ad industry itself who don’t seem to have understood the real worth of their brand ideas.

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