A branding studio, an advertising agency and a design company walked into a bar.

All three of them argue on who gets to answer the question and the argument lasts the entire night.

As a branding studio, we are often asked the question: “how are you different from an advertising agency?” We’re also certain that advertising agencies get asked a similar question much like graphic design companies. We’d like to clear the air with this essay on what’s the difference between each and also, how and why we’re different.

Theoretically speaking, advertising, branding and graphic design are components of a higher entity – marketing.

Marketing, in the briefest sense, is any activity that is executed in order to sell a product. Advertising is what you do in order to sell – print ads, TV commercials, posters, etc. Branding tells you how to sell and whom to sell to. You dazzle customers through advertising and design, you sell through marketing while you retain them through branding.

To best explain this, we’re going to use Café Aromatico – a client we just made up. As the name suggests, the client sells coffee. In this scenario, it’s instant coffee. So, how do we go about this?

It Always Begins With The Name

In some cases, the company behind the product usually create the name. But, a majority of products are named by the agency. Here, both an advertising agency and a branding studio can be deployed to come up with an interesting name. Several name options are submitted and one is chosen after careful consideration.

Once a name has been confirmed, it shifts to brand identity.

What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

As a kid, we’re often asked that question. In this case, the brand is your kid. While creating brand identity and strategy is the core function of a branding studio, there have been many cases where advertising agencies can also perform this function. However, if you must choose an advertising agency, ensure that they have in-house branding experts. Chances are that it’s usually the client servicing manager or the copywriter who ends up creating your brand strategy and they may not have enough standalone experience in branding.

For this exercise, let’s assume that the client has already named his product – Café Aromatico. What’s next? We start creating its identity. This usually involves logos, brand fonts, packaging design and other material. Design is a key component of this little exercise. Advertising, branding and design companies are all equipped with a team of designers to work on this. It is always a good thing to sit down with the Creative Director and pick their brain. This will help you understand their vision so that you can be sure that all of you are in the same wavelength.

But, in order to create all of this, we must first arrive at what Café Aromatico really is. Who is the target audience? What are we going to talk about when we talk about coffee?

Café Aromatico is an instant coffee brand. The major players in the industry are Nescafe and Bru, who have been at loggerheads for decades. Taste, aroma and experience have been mentioned time and time again. So, there’s no point going down the same road.

This is common across industries. In one of our earlier posts, we discussed the trouble1 faced by the endearing upma as a result of its Italian cousin, the pasta. Both products are made from variants of durum wheat (pasta in India is rarely made from maida). But somehow, pasta with its universally beloved personality has trumped the humble and healthy upma.

In the case of Café Aromatico, you can’t be the same when you’re stripped to the bare essentials. Your product will certainly be 0.01% different from your competitor.

A branding studio would look into the product itself. They would study everything there is to know about the product. We go to coffee houses and observe coffee drinkers. That’s the battlefield. How do you get this unassuming coffee drinker to visit the grocery store and buy Café Aromatico?

To find an answer to this question, you’ll need to go down the rabbit hole to find even the slightest difference between your brand and your competitors.

It is often said that the only difference between Pepsi and Coke are the colours. But, when you taste it, you see another difference. Coke has an edgier taste than Pepsi. So, try the product and compare with others. Is there something we can say about the taste that Nescafe and Bru haven’t already? Does it taste exotic? Are the Arabica beans flavoursome? Is it stronger than the rest?

Branding studios perform extensive research into this process because this is a vital cog of the entire brand wheel. It is the lifeline of any brand. A brand that starts off tone-deaf (like Peloton2 for instance) can never recover from the shambles. Let’s also assume that Café Aromatico costs the same as Nescafe so that we are neither a luxury nor an excuse for saving money.

Your Product Has The Answers

“The magic is in your product. You’ve got to live with your product. You’ve got to get steeped in it. You’ve got to get saturated with it.” – Bill Bernbach

One of the first things you learn in branding or advertising is that your product possesses both the problem and the solution. You wonder how you’re going to promote the product and in the tiniest way possible, your product is telling you how to do it.

Volkswagen made an ugly little car called the Beetle that was promoted as an ugly, little car that was also extremely reliable. Your product’s cons are often pros if you look at it in a different light.

We realised that the only way Café Aromatico could compete not only with Nescafe and Bru, but also the coffeehouses and artisanal cafés was if we told something that no one else did.

Café Aromatico is instant coffee much like its competitors. But, unlike their communications, we are not going to talk about flavour, aroma and the feel-good factor. We are going to talk about how easy it is to make coffee. This is usually when you, dear reader, jump out of your chair and say:

We hear you loud and clear. But, in order to separate Café Aromatico from what is already a saturated industry segment, you’ll need to look at the tiniest thing in order to create a difference.

In 1917, Lucky Strike, a failing brand of tobacco came up with a new strategy: “It’s toasted!” Lucky Strike claimed that its tobacco was toasted and that made them a better choice for the health-conscious consumers. The thing is, almost every other tobacco brand either toasted or sun-dried their tobacco but didn’t think of it as a USP allowing Lucky Strike to capitalise on that claim.

In the later decades, several brands including Camel and Chesterfield have implied that they too toast their tobacco but it didn’t help them at all. By using that slogan, Luckies created a perception that they were better than other brands because they care about the consumer’s health. The campaign turned the dying brand into a major industry player.

Talking about the ease of making coffee may seem like a minute thing. But, it goes a long way. Ease and simplicity made Maggi more popular than Top Ramen. Maggi gives the 2-minute assurance while Top Ramen wants you to know that their product is delicious. It brings to mind another question: would you wait a long time to get a great-tasting pizza or would you rather order one from Domino’s because they deliver within thirty minutes.

Coffee Sells, But Who’s Buying?

One of the key components of your branding strategy is to decipher the target audience. Any client would want the entire world to be their target audience. It’s a commonality. But, it’s the job of the branding studio to define the audience.

Now, you know what your brand’s USP is and the identity is already in design. Next step is to create customer personalities.

Branding studios generally create presentation after presentation with different personalities. For Café Aromatico, let’s assume anyone from 21-49 to be our target. Since, we want to explore the easiness factor, let’s consider our target to be hard-working people. They are tired when they get home and they want to make coffee, the easy way.

The more you dig deep into the consumer personalities, the more you refine your brand.

Every Brand Has Its Day

Your brand needs personality. If you want to brand to emerge onscreen and walk like Rajinikanth, you’ll need to shape it into one. If you want your brand to talk like Don Corleone, you’ll need to train your audiences into accepting it as the Godfather. The only way you do it, is by making an impression through personality.

Surf Excel means cleanliness – the brand’s most popular campaign is “dirt is good” which hammered down the point that no matter how dirty your clothes are, Surf Excel cleans it up. Tide, on the other hand promises whiteness while Rin promises a powerful and easy wash.

Ideally, a branding studio will look into how Café Aromatico will interact with its customers. Folgers, an American coffee brand became a household name when its campaigns urged consumers to “wake up and smell their great coffee.” Folgers, at that time was competing with Nescafe and Maxwell House. The competitors made better coffee than Folgers. However, Folgers captured the emotion of every lazy American morning.

If we’re going to position Café Aromatico as an easy way to drink coffee, we’ll need to create a personality that’s likeable and warm. Café Aromatico needs to be associated with simple, the same way Kleenex is associated with tissues and Google is associated with “finding any and all information”.

What To Say, When To Say & How To Say It

Thus, we arrive at Voice – no, not the voice of the announcer in your ad; but rather, the voice of your product. If Café Aromatico were a person with the now-established personality, how would it speak and how would that sound? Is Café Aromatico a nerd or a jock, a dweeb or a dork, a spoon or a… you get the picture, don’t you?

Café Aromatico is a reasonably-priced brand of instant coffee with an emphasis on the “instant”. It is a helpful, warm brand with traits of simplicity and speed. How is it helpful? You can make coffee easier. Add more personality traits and you’ll be on your way to determine the voice. If you need more guidance on how to create your brand’s voice, click here3.

Eschew Obfuscation, Espouse Elucidation

As a coffee brand, you might want to say how great it is to try the product. Thing is, whether you’re a luxury coffee brand or a dead-cheap one, your product doesn’t make the difference. Your communication does.

Don’t be ambiguous and as much as you can, speak clearly. Even if you’re Louis Vuitton and your audience is the elite few, speak clearly. Don’t complicate things that don’t need to be complicated. You have a brand voice. Use it well.

Polish The Poles

“The People of Poland are referred to as both the Poles and the Polish people. Which brings to mind the question, how does one polish the poles?” – overheard at a Bangkok bar around midnight.

In this pivotal act, branding studios and advertising agencies sum up everything that they’ve come up with, put together one or more presentations, and re-check everything thrice to ensure that their plan is fool-proof. You cannot let any little idea be interpreted in more than one way. If you let the client think for themselves, you’re basically letting them polish the poles. Make sure that there are no leaky faucets and no creaky floor tiles.

How To Act Like An Ad

Once a branding studio or an advertising agency successfully sells a branding strategy, the next step is advertising. As you were working on the strategy, it’s extremely possible to have already arrived at a few ideas. Put these ideas to work. Think hard and think long. Then, think small. It sounds funny but when Café Aromatico can differentiate itself from Nescafe based on one small trait, the advertising must also tackle all the roads before settling on the one less travelled.

This is where both advertising agencies and design studios shift into full throttle. This is the kind of work they are meant to do. Ad agencies see the whole campaign as a set of ideas brought to life with an invigorating tagline. Design studios see it as a series of great creatives that can be complemented by a tagline. The approach may be different, but the thinking is often the same.

Sukkrish Aadds, being a branding and design studio, does take part in creating and executing advertising campaigns4 from time to time for our clients.

Sell, Baby, Sell!

In this essay, we discussed marketing early on but ignored it for the next two thousand words. The chicken or the egg debate is very similar to the marketing or advertising debate. Marketing both succeeds and encapsulates advertising advertising. The thin line that separates both marketing and advertising is blurry for a reason.

Café Aromatico now has had a campaign full of ads telling people how easy it is to make coffee. No vacuum siphons or French Press. No requirement for an espresso machine or a branded coffee maker. Just hot water, milk and a spoon.

Advertising agencies continue churning ads, modifying little bits of design and copy as they go.

Those Santoor Commercials Have Aged A Lot

If you’ve ever tuned into a major South Indian television channel, be it entertainment or the news, you’ve inexplicably seen the Santoor commercial.

It all began with Madhavan, the actor playing Madhavan, the creepy flirt at a dance studio where he sees a young woman with impressive skills. He dances along and makes some now-creepy observations about her skin tone. Then, a young girl runs towards the woman and in the most cheerful tone, yells out “mummy!” A befuddled Madhavan repeats the same line, leaving us even more worried if the young woman and her daughter made it alive.

The corny idea became extremely popular and several variations of it have been made with stars from other industries (including Mahesh Babu) pretending to be flummoxed that a woman with apparent bright skin cannot be a “mummy”. This ad has also spawned other cosmetic manufacturers to create similar “Oh, my mummy is so beautiful and bright” ads.

We are not getting into the tone-deafness of these advertisements but rather the repetition of the line – x makes y beautiful.

Despite our issues with Santoor’s commercials, we think the campaign hit a good spot and has become a popular brand. But, when you hit the point of saturation, you’ve nowhere to go but down. People are going to get tired of your ad.

Café Aromatico will face a similar problem at least a year after launching their first ads. If data shows that enough people know about your product, then that campaign has done its job. It’s time to move on with a different campaign but don’t forget where you came from. Have you heard the phrase: old wine in a new bottle? It’s the same thing here.

Take your brand’s personality, voice and slogan, and see how else you can approach it. If Café Aromatico’s ads have been hammering on the simple angle, find other ways to say that you’re simple. Advertising agencies are the best at figuring out this but when there’s enough research, even a branding studio can analyse and find out what else to say to the customer and how to say it.

Here’s where you start to ask questions. Do I use the same type of communication? How am I different from where I was one year ago? How close am I to Nescafe? Do people dig my brand? Am I a sensation with the wrong crowd?

Ch… Ch… Ch… Changes

“You gotta make a change. You see the old way wasn’t working so it’s on us, to do what we gotta do to survive.” — Tupac Shakur

Nothing lasts forever. Not even cold November rain (we swear that this will be the last reference to music in this essay). No strategy is eternal. Agencies will need to revisit the strategies they created to see if it still fits the brand’s current ID. Café Aromatico may have had humble beginnings but if you’ve reached Point B, there’s no need to continue talking about Point A. Instead, start talking about Point C.

Even advertising agencies and design studios will look into their previous campaigns and refresh their communications to sound different but tell the same story. Old wine in a new bottle.

The Legend of Café Aromatico

Throughout this essay, we’ve used a mock brand called Café Aromatico to explain the roles of different agencies in creating a coffee brand’s path from supermarket aisle to kitchen shelf. Café Aromatico is every other brand in the world. Every brand wants to have what Café Aromatico has – clear-cut strategy, effective communication and customer retention. It takes all three – branding, advertising and design – to get this. While each institution plays a small role, the lines are still blurry.

Any of the three institutions can single-handedly do all of the above. Even us, a branding studio can create a branding strategy, execute ad campaigns, analyse research, reset the clock and start over with a new approach.

In his seminal essay, Existentialism & Humanism, Jean-Paul Sartre harped on the now infamous thought: “existence precedes essence.” In the essay, Sartre explained that there is no ‘essential’ human nature, and that your nature or personality is what you choose it to be.

Design companies choose to be more than just design. Branding studios choose to be more than just branding. At Sukkrish Aadds, we cover more than just branding and design.

But, that doesn’t make us an advertising agency. Neither does it makes Ogilvy or DDB a branding studio.

We do all of it, but, we are not alike.

written by Shreesh Shankar