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Page1of 1 Are You a Slave to Brand DNA?
by Ernie Schenck

So it turns out scientists are actually starting to believe that the Wachowskis might be more prescient than they know. As a physics moron, I cannot explain why they think this, but there is increasing evidence that we might, in fact, be living in The Matrix, that everything we think is real might be nothing more than a projection on a bedsheet.

You realize what this means, of course. There might be no such thing as brand DNA. You know, that corporate double helix thing on which lie the genes for coolness, authenticity, simplicity, creativity, sincerity, connectedness to heritage and, well, it goes on and on.

But is there really such a thing as brand DNA, at least in the context that we understand it? For that matter, is there really such a thing as brands at all? Was Nike born with a Just Do It gene? What about The Ultimate Driving Machine gene? Is it something BMW inherited? I think it’s safe to say, brands are a fiction. Companies aren’t born with them. Marketing people invent them.

Case in point: As I’m writing this, a minor furor has erupted in reaction to an ad I posted on Facebook, a Guinness spot about two sisters, both of them trying to make it onto the Winter Olympic biathlon team. One makes it. The other gets sick. Never even gets to the trials. The first sister gives up her place on the team so her sibling can go to Sochi. Fade up end line: The choices we make reveal the true nature of our character. Guinness.

A lot of commenters thought the spot was off-brand, that it didn’t carry the Guinness gene. Others thought that didn’t matter, either at all, or not much. Which leads to an important question: Does advertising always need to be in lock-step with a brand, or are there ever times when we can, and maybe should, go down another path?

“What is a brand, anyway?” asks creative director Christopher Gyorgy. “It’s existential. The whole idea of a brand is nothing more than an arbitrary construct created from whole cloth that defines the personality of a product. It’s made up. So what we’re asking is, is the advertising that we create out of thin air compatible with a brand we created out of thin air? In other words, does our luggage match?”

Though he normally agrees that it’s more effective if the creative and brand are in sync, Before & After founder Tom Monahan believes that if the creative explosion is big enough, it can outweigh the disadvantages of a renegade idea: “The benefit of advertising is usually the aftershock, not the initial explosion. Does it cause action? Does it elevate the brand? A weak explosion caused by an ad that slavishly adheres to a brand’s DNA isn’t going to have a powerful or lasting aftershock.”

“It’s about what a brand would do, not what I would do,” says Ideasicle founder Will Burns, who has worked with major brands all over the world. Creatives have to ask: “Is this caveman some-thing you want to do, Geico? Or not? What about it, Levi’s, you cool with Walt Whitman for a voiceover? Yes? No? If a brand is articulated well enough, clearly enough, it’ll tell you if an idea is out of its comfort zone and maybe too much of a stretch,” Burns says. “But if it feels comfortable with an idea, then I’d say it’s on-brand.”

But for Ernest Industries founder and CEO Ernest Lupinacci, brands have identities, just like people. If you wouldn’t force the Dalai Llama to wear skinny jeans and a hoodie, why would you do some-thing equally incongruous with a brand? “If you’re just run-ning ads to entertain and charm people, you’re being lazy,” says Lupinacci. “‘1984’ was an incredibly entertaining spot, but it also defined the Apple brand and the Macintosh product. Bottom line, if you want to make art, go buy some paint.” Otherwise, he says, “force yourself to come up with a brilliant idea that sells.”

Matt Ian, executive creative director of TBWA\Chiat\Day NY, couldn’t agree more, especially when it comes to the Super Bowl. Here’s what he said in a recent interview with The Drum: “The Super Bowl is a venue for brands to make their mark. What baffles me is when brands forget themselves in order to make that mark.  What’s the point of forgoing your brand in order to stand out? So you get Carmen Electra and the Blue Angels? What does that do for you if you’re just going to turn around and air running footage spots on Monday? You’ve spent all this money and you’ve left people with nothing but a fleeting water cooler anecdote.”

Droga5’s chief creative officer Ted Royer isn’t so sure though. “If Guinness seriously believes in ‘Made of More’ as a guiding principle, not just for themselves as beer makers but for society, then good for them. If a brand wants to create a position that’s bigger than itself, who’s to say that’s wrong?”

What side do you come down on? If a brand is an arbitrary construct, as Gyorgy says, then is a brand’s DNA only as real as we say it is? Or is it something woven into the warp and woof of a company that we walk away from at our peril? ca Schenck
Ernie Schenck ( is a freelance writer, a creative director and a regular contributor to CA’s Advertising column. An Emmy finalist, three-time Kelley nominee and a perennial award winner—the One Show, Clios, D&AD, Emmys and Cannes—Schenck worked on campaigns for some of the most prestigious brands in the world in his roles at Hill Holliday/Boston, Leonard Monahan Saabye and Pagano Schenck & Kay. He lives with his wife and daughter in Jamestown, Rhode Island.