What Have You Done for Me Lately?

Branding. It had a great run. It made fortunes for consultants, publishers, designers, senior vice presidents of marketing — and cleaned up some messy client imagery. But its unrivaled dominance as the sine qua non of all things marketing, its supremacy as the dominant marketing principle that will build businesses has bitten the dust — along with junk mortgages and Ponzi schemes.

Great brands are still the most effective information-compression devices ever invented. It’s just that the way of getting there has to change. Instead of building brand power from the top down, it’s time to build great brands from the bottom up — one delightful idea, innovation, line-extension message after another. As opposed to the age of the all-powerful, monolithic brand such as American Express, Dell, IBM, Sheraton, we have entered the age of “What have you done for me lately?” branding. Or, to put it another way — the brand does not build the delight, the delight builds the brand.

Think Enron. Delta. Starbucks. These famous, well-integrated brands all share one thing: crappy sales.

Despite this, marketers and marketing executives are still leaning on the “branding” crutch.

The importance of “What have you done for me lately?” thinking is even more exacerbated by the unholy and sometimes “smarmy” way brands are starting to insinuate themselves into social networking. As coined by the author of the Web blog, The Toad Stool, “Your brand is not my friend.”

Sound like heresy? In fact, “What have you done for me lately?” is a brand-building idea that goes back over a century and been proven time and time again. Think about Mr. Macy picking merchandise and making orders, figuring out if the hose should go in the window or in the back while jockeying sales and exclusives. Or Mr. Paley, crafting the CBS brand one show, one record, one event at a time. These brands became one delightful experience time after time. To lose the non-stop innovation and delight and just push the brand is like trying to sell Yankees merchandise in October when they’re no longer in the playoffs.

People — consumers, your customers — are smart. They are looking for news, interest and stimulation. They are looking for ideas and lots of them. Keep delivering and they’ll keep coming back to you.

Lincoln had a string of failures until a rogue down in the hardscrabble Southwest starting winning battle after battle. When Lincoln was informed that U.S. Grant, the general in question, had a drinking “problem,” Lincoln was said to respond, “Find out whatever it is he’s drinking and send a case to each of my other generals.” From these wins (“What have you done for me lately?”) came a new strategy, commander and ultimately, victory. Not only did Grant eventually become president himself, he became the first Manhattan celebrity (his tomb was the most-visited spot in American until well into the 20th century).

One image almost single-handedly saved the Bud brand back in the ’80s. Miller was cleaning Bud’s clock until an enterprising distributor noticed a promotion that a local retailer was running in a Midwest college town. It featured an attitude-ridden dog called Spuds Mackenzie. Thanks to this alert distributor this quirky canine quickly became the clarion call for the brand. It injected “delight” into the marketing equation.

Without creativity, without delight, without a non-stop stream of innovation, you’ve got an epic brand like Heaven’s Gate. With it, you’ve got Casablanca.

So next time you’re trying to save, ignite, revive or establish a successful business, instead of building a brand, build a delight machine. The brand will come out of it, and your business will be triumphant. Try anything that works. And while you’re doing it, keep an eye out for your drinking generals and your far-flung beer distributors and read obscure articles and look for shimmering sentences. Don’t ever let the handcuffs of “branding” get in the way of a brilliant idea. “What have you done for me lately?” translates into “What I’ll do for you next” far more effectively than a million brand plans, mission statements, promises and graphics standards manuals.