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Q: “Advertising. Branding. What the hell’s the difference?”

A: It’s the difference between RC Cola and Coca-Cola.

I used to hate this question. Truly.

For years I’ve watched agency leaders try to impart the difference between Advertising and Branding to their clients, rarely with success. Worse, it’s painful to witness. I know. I’ve bombed this one plenty of times. 

Up until the moment they ask this question, the client has been under the impression that the team before them are good communicators, and they’re expecting a clear answer. After all, isn’t marketing the agency’s mother tongue? Isn’t this the thing they say they’re so much better at than the other guys? Spit it out, man. Explain it to me.

Then, the inevitable happens. Some poor soul, typically the senior person in the room, clears his or her throat, looks the client dead in the eye—and verbally fumbles like a Pee Wee Football running back. 

The trouble is most clients haven’t experienced proper branding firsthand. (There’s a reason there are only a handful of Disneys, Nikes and Apples in the world.) Because of this, their marketing efforts are heavily influenced, to their detriment, by what they see in their respective categories. They think they’re SUPPOSED to look and sound like everyone else. 

For an agency to create something great on their client’s behalf— something that connects with their audience, grows the business and makes believers out of everyone—they have to drag the client out of Advertising Land and move them into the Branding Universe.

This starts with explaining WHY they should want it in the first place. Hence, the great challenge.

The problem lies in explaining the difference between Advertising and Branding, because the difference can’t be explained without context. It has to be experienced.

And while driving to a client meeting one day, I saw something that solved this problem for me and our agency. I’ve been using this anecdote ever since. 

The Situation

I was meeting with a large healthcare company—one suffering from the lookalike marketing referred to above. It was a new client, and I was meeting a team of 12 people, none of whom knew me from Adam.

First on my mind was getting this group of disparate people to focus on HOW we needed to structure the message instead of WHAT they wanted to include. I needed something relevant for everyone, so we could work together efficiently. 

The project was simple enough on paper: take 20 slides chock-full of descriptive, often bulleted copy, and turn them into a compelling story the sales team could use to better emotionally engage and convert prospective clients.

But I didn’t know how to show them what I needed them to see.

Then I saw a tow truck on the side of the road, and I had one of those perfect moments of clarity usually reserved for birth of a first child or a near-death experience on the Big Screen. I decided at that moment to take a gamble that would ultimately pay off big for the agency. 

Sitting in the client’s office a few minutes later, I pulled up the presentation title slide and turned to face the group.

“I’d like to try something different today,” I said. “I have a pretty good agency presentation, by which I mean it’s only ten slides, and just two of them talk about the agency.” (Polite chuckles around the table. No one wants to watch an agency presentation.)

“We could go through the presentation, and in about 15 minutes it would give you a good understanding of what we bring to the table. Or, I could tell you a 90-second story that will unify everyone in this room around the value and purpose of branding in a way that you’ll never forget.”

“15 minutes or 90 seconds. Which do you choose?”

Everyone looks at each other, then turns to look at the senior leader in the room, who grins and says, “Hell, I want the 90-second story.”

So I close the laptop and tell the Tow Truck Story for the first time. 

The Tow Truck Story

Imagine you’re going to something extremely important. Could be a career-changing interview or renewing wedding vows or being the emcee at your parent’s 50th anniversary. Doesn’t matter except for two things:

1.  It’s incredibly important to you.

2.  You HAVE to be there, in person and on time.

So you’ve spent weeks or months preparing for the big day, and it’s finally here. You’re dressed in your Sunday best and have all the paperwork ready to go. This is it.

It’s raining like crazy when you get into your car. You look at your watch and everything is going as  planned. You’re leaving an hour early, it only takes 30 minutes to get there. 

But as you pull onto the highway, the worst possible thing happens. You get a flat. Normally you’d change it yourself, but it’s raining like mad, and you’re in a nice outfit, so you call for a tow truck.

It takes the driver 15 minutes to get to you, cutting your 30-minute cushion in half, and that’s before any work has been done. At that moment the driver taps on your window and asks, “Did you call for help?”

“Yes, yes. That’s me,” you say.

The driver cracks a huge smile and says the following:

“You know, you made the right decision calling Our Towing Company. We’ve been in business longer than any other towing company in the area. Truth told, we’ve been in business longer than any other company in towing history.

But, that’s not all. Our people are better trained than any other towing company. We do twice as much training as any of our competitors. Our people are the very best and go through a rigorous evaluation process before they’re hired because we want you to have the very best towing experience possible. It’s because of these two things alone that we have become the most awarded towing company in history. We’re extremely proud of that achievement.

Now, you see that truck I brought here today? We worked exclusively with Miller Towing Equipment to develop that truck. No one else has anything like it. We did this because your car is the second most expensive purchase most people make, and you’ll want to know it won’t be damaged due to a faulty truck experience. 

The tires on that truck, well we worked with Michelin on a proprietary formula to ensure our trucks won’t slip on a rainy day like today. Our trucks will always be there when you need us. 

That’s how much we care for our clients.”

Now, I ask you. What are you thinking about the entire time this clown is speaking? “Shut up, and fix the damn tire.” That’s what you’re thinking.

Now imagine the exact same scenario. Same truck. Same driver. Same timeframe. Only this time it happens like this:

The driver knocks on your glass. “Did you call for a truck?”

“Yes, yes. That’s me,” you say.

“Great. Our motto is On the Road in 10 Minutes or Less. We know you’re busy. Sight tight.” And he goes to work.

Who will you recommend to your friends? And who will you avoid like the plague?

That’s the difference between Advertising and Branding.

Let’s Break it Down

The person driving the car, that’s everyone. Consumer, customer, client, investor, whatever you call them. It’s a human being trying desperately to balance their life’s requirements while shoveling 15 lbs. of responsibility into a 5 lb. day. They don’t have time to weigh the differences between companies on the whole. Nor do they have the inclination. The labels most companies use to define themselves only make it more confusing. This is equally true of B2B and B2C/D2C/DTC efforts — as well as every other type of communication, both internal and external.

Everyone wants a simple, effective solution for their situation right now. (a.k.a. one that changes their emotional state for the better.)

Truck Driver No. 1 is the 99% of businesses that believe their competitive advantage is some innovation, team makeup, technology solution or promotion that everyone can clearly see is to their advantage. These businesses believe the role of sales and marketing is to laundry list their features and benefits as specifically and frequently as they can afford to demonstrate how they’re better than the competition.

Truck Driver No. 2 is the 1% of brands every company leader dreams their business will one day become, namely Nike, Disney, Apple, etc. These companies understand no one cares about their innovations, promotions, features or benefits per se—unless expressed as a reflection of what their target audience values most.

In the example above, this means getting to the important meeting on time. You only have to pick up any magazine, turn on any TV channel or scroll through any social media feed to see this type of bad advertising. It’s literally everywhere. And it’s why so few businesses reach their full potential.

I watched the people in the meeting room that day as lightbulbs went off over their heads. The leader who said he wanted to hear the story over my PowerPoint presentation turned to me and said, “Everything we’re doing is wrong.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “Now that you see it, we can make real change.”

The presentation we developed on their behalf (which never took the form of the traditional marketing materials we are so frequently hired to create) was one of (and many said the) most successful in the company’s history.

Branding is not Advertising.

You want Branding. This is why.

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