Published in Mar-Apr 2023
It is said that the sixties Mad Men era started the global branded revolution. The first wave of this branded storm hit Pakistan in the late seventies and led to a transformation in client and agency relationships and ultimately defined modern-day marketing.
In my opinion, Lever Brothers (now Unilever) were the fathers of the branded revolution in Pakistan. In those days, they were known more as the manufacturers of Dalda and Lifebuoy, and for having market-dominant brands such as Lipton, Lux and Surf in their portfolio. They knew that as long as the quality of their products was superior to the competition, they were pretty much set. In fact, well into the seventies, savvy consumers could easily distinguish between a high-quality and a shabby product. So, as much as we like to complain about what we buy, it is a fact that we are living in a golden age of quality products. Today, it is rare to find cars that consistently break down or soaps that dissolve quickly. I challenge you to walk into any supermarket and find a product that is not of almost equal quality to the category leader in terms of functional performance. Nevertheless, the companies that were category leaders in the early days are more often than not the same ones today – and this speaks to the discipline of branding and marketing.
The Birth of Modern Brands
The shift from simple products to brands was not sudden or inevitable. One could argue that brands grew out of the need to standardise the quality of products in the mid-20th century and this required companies to find a way to differentiate themselves from their competitors. It was then that consumer packaged goods companies, such as General Foods, P&G and Unilever, developed the discipline of brand management – and the brand manager’s function was to give a product an identity that distinguished it from nearly indistinguishable competitors.
This required both understanding the target consumer and providing a ‘branded proposition’ that offered not only functional but emotional value. Over time, the emotional value would create a buffer against functional parity. As long as a brand was perceived to offer superior value, it could charge a little more. If this ‘brand advantage’ was higher than the cost of building the brand (additional staff and advertising costs), the company came out ahead.
In Pakistan, in the fifties and sixties, brands such as Dalda, Lipton, Lifebuoy and Lux set the benchmark for today’s brands. They marked the start of four decades of marketing whereby ‘winning’ depended on understanding the consumer better than the competition and getting the ‘brand mix’ right. The brand mix is more than about the logo or the price. It is about the packaging, the promotions and the advertising, all of which are guided by precisely worded positioning statements or brand keys.
Building Articulate Brands
Few brands are articulate. Even the people who invented brand management find it a challenge. When I worked with P&G in the nineties (when they first entered Pakistan), I noticed that although many of their brands were highly regarded for their functional quality, Unilever brands had a stronger emotional bond with consumers.
For decades, the big companies marketed brands and everyone else sold products. When I graduated from university, I knew it was important to work for companies such as Coca-Cola, Colgate, Nestlé, Pepsi, P&G or Unilever in order to learn the ropes of marketing and branding. The other companies, which sought to introduce brand management, tended to hire ‘graduates’ from the above companies after they had trained there for five years. From thereon, those marketers fanned out across Pakistan’s marketing industry. A LinkedIn search of the top marketing people will confirm how important those companies were in shaping Pakistan’s branded revolution.
From a Single to Multiple Agencies
There was a time when every client had only one agency. This was when product differentiation did not matter. However, when it became paramount to build distinct brands, clients realised the importance of hiring different agencies to work on different brands. This brought a sharper focus to every brand. In Pakistan, the process gained momentum with the arrival of agency affiliations three decades ago.
The Evolution Continues
Initially, brands were aligned with products and organisations. At the least effective level, brands could lay claim to distinct attributes, functions and features. Taking it up a notch, brands could claim distinct benefits: functional, emotional, experiential or self-expressive. Today, they focus on values and purpose. Brands need to stand for something and share a set of values with their customers. The most powerful of those brands will create communities based on shared values, culture and a sense of identity and purpose.