Brand Dilution in Online Advertising

Perhaps one of the most iconic cases of branding is the Campbell’s soup can:

Campbell's soup can

– and this is because it is the epitome of repetition (as Andy Warhol also pointed out). Yet does the iconic red and white branding backfire for Campbell’s? What I mean is: Even if there is a high likelihood that I could find a Campbell’s soup can in almost every pantry on the planet, would my expectation be that this Campbell’s soup can would contain tomato soup? If we are fairly certain that it would indeed be tomato soup, then the branding is quite concentrated. If, on the contrary, the branding is rather nebulous with respect to exactly what product or service being offered, then perhaps we can speak of brand dilution. A prime example of this would be the following image:

yellowpages booster seat

Here the telephone book publishing company’s product / service is becoming confused with that of a “seat booster” — brand dilution par excellence!

What is needed, therefore, is not only the degree of repetition or exposure, but it is also important that the brand be recognized in contexts that convey the attributes of the product or service the brand features in the advertisement.

Random mentions of products or services lead to commoditization rather than commercialization. A can of soup in every household is a far greater endorsement than a forest of wanton signs, billboards, flashing lights and whatnot.


But how do these ideas translate from street branding and advertising to the online branding and advertising space? The random walk of signs and signposts easily translate into the data streams flowing down the screen on twitter or facebook, but what are the more focused, coherent equivalents of a Campbell’s soup can?

Firstly, such a coherent message needs to block any potential distractions: there are to be no bells and whistles, no complicating factors, no mixed messages. Advertisers and/or marketers must speak clearly, succinctly and directly to the potential customer. They must share a discussion space as equals — online, this is not the supermarket aisle or the bus stop shelter, neither is it the pantry cupboard, nor the highway billboard which says turn right or left at the next exit. Geography and various aspects of localization play little or no role here. Whether the space is a coffee shop or a municipal park is insignificant. The shared space has one prominent defining feature: the word or words used to pose a question in the hope of receiving an answer. This may be such words or phrases as “tomato soup”, “business news” or “presidential elections”. Each marketer or advertiser — such as the Campbell’s soup company — must decide which spaces are appropriate to feature their brand’s presence and relevance (so, for example: Campbell may wish to be present when it comes to such phrases as “tomato soup” or “mushroom soup”, maybe also “food” or “recipes”, but probably not “telephones”, “laptops”, “computers”, “music” or “videos” — and whether “modern times” might be a good or a bad fit needs to be carefully considered).

In any case, Campbell’s would be making a huge mistake if they were to reduce their engagement to merely focus on “campbells” — because in that case they would run the risk of not being present in any definitive branding contexts. Brand exposure requires meaningful contexts for brands to be appropriately contextualized — and it is the potential customers’ vocabulary that defines which palette of contexts are available to market the products or services being offered. Whereas offline a company seeks to place their brand name in appropriate real-world contexts, online the company must contextualize the brand via topical words, phrases, discussions and similar text strings — this is not a matter of brand dilution, but rather a branding imperative: such contextualizations are necessary in order to give meaning to the brand name.

Of course there are also other, additional, branding opportunities — for example in such realms as business ethics, corporate social responsibility, etc., but the point I wish to highlight here is that in order to acquire the customers brands want to acquire, brand managers must pay attention to lexicon these potential customers actually use in those contexts in which the brand’s products and/or services offer appropriate answers to these potential customers’ questions. Indeed: Online, one can perhaps speak of cross-lexical advertising in much the same way as in offline settings one speaks of cross-media advertising to transport the same consistent and coherent message across various contexts. This ought not to be interpreted as brand dilution, but rather as brand development. Brands become reliable if and when they are consistently in the right place at the right time. ;)

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