by Bob Hoffman (@adcontrarian), San Francisco Bay  Among the topics that marketing and advertising people can bore you to death with, perhaps the most annoying is “brands.”

On one side we have brand maniacs (often, agency creative directors) who think that all advertising has to do is get “the brand” adcontraright and everything else will fall into place. On the other end of the spectrum we have brand deniers (lately, online advertising zealots) who think brands are “dead.” Both sides invariably overstate their case.

Let’s start with first principles.

At the most basic level, what a brand helps us do is identify things. Just like we give ourselves names, we give products brands so we can distinguish them from each other.

At the next level, brands help us build value into our product. If all products were generic, why invest in making ours better? Anyone who lived in a communist state can tell you all about that.

At the third level a brand helps us differentiate our product and build consumer preference. There is a reason why people prefer Coke to Pepsi, and it has very little to do with what’s in the can. In fact, if we took every Coke can in the world and filled it with Pepsi, and took every Pepsi can in the world and filled it with Coke, I doubt there would be very much change in the relative success of the brands.

At the highest level is brand love – the theory is that people love certain brands. This is where the brand ideologues runs into big trouble.

While we all have a handful of brands we’re attached to, for the most part our attachments are paper thin. We have preferences and habits, but we have very little love.

We participate in hundreds of product categories and there are probably somewhere between five and ten brands that we actually feel strongly about.

We will gladly change airlines if it will save us a few bucks. We will happily move to a new bank if it’s more convenient. We will change cell phone carriers and cable companies in a heartbeat for a better rate.

The Apples and Nikes of this world — brands that people truly feel stubbornly loyal to  — are very few and very far between. And even these brands will find that under certain circumstances a strong product will trump their brand.

A good policy is to ignore the irresponsible yakking of both agency brand babblers and digital data dweebs. The brand maniacs and the brand deniers are both wrong.

Brand power is real, but it is highly contingent.

The Ad Contrarian is Bob Hoffman (@adcontrarian), the author of The Ad Contrarian and 101 Contrarian Ideas About Advertising.

This column has been republished from his blog The Ad Contrarian.

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