The Name’s Brand… James Brand

In January 2020 Heineken put out a brilliant ad starring Daniel Craig making his way through a celebrity event with everyone expecting him to act like James Bond. The ad tested extremely well – it got 5-Stars in System1’s TestYourAd, putting it in an elite category of ads which truly delight viewers. Bond gave Heineken a licence to sell – and of course the ad neatly promoted the imminent Bond movie, No Time To Die.

But then came Covid-19, and an 18-month delay for the film, which finally arrives in cinemas this month. That Heineken ad looks like a commercial from another world now – glamorous locations, packed parties, and not a mask in sight. It’s been a very difficult birth for Craig’s final outing as the legendary spy.

James Bond, though, has always had to adjust to his times. Craig’s tortured, sensitive Bond is in firm contrast to Pierce Brosnan’s urbane action hero, let alone Roger Moore’s knowing seventies gadget-lover. At the same time, James Bond has always stayed the same. The international locations, the chases, drinks, cars and criminal masterminds have changed far less than the actors. And between the two poles sit the ‘Bond girls’, whose role today is dramatically different from the early movies. Imagine a cinemagoer with no Bond knowledge watching a double bill of No Time To Die and 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever. Very different experiences – but recognisably and fundamentally the same franchise.

Moving with the times while staying basically the same is a trick most brands would very much like to pull off. Brands live and die by their availability – both physical and mental, so it pays to cultivate distinctive assets that come readily to mind, like logos, slogans, jingles and characters. Never change or evolve these assets and your brand risks feeling stale or out of date, especially next to new competitors. But change them too much and you put your brand’s fluency – its speed of recognition – at risk.

The owners of successful brand characters know when to change things subtly and also know when a change can mean big publicity. Just as the introduction of Judi Dench as a female M made waves for Bond when Brosnan took over, KFC got a lot of press mileage in 2018 when Reba McIntyre became its first woman Colonel. But having a strong brand character can also be a source of attention when you reverse gear too. Every Bond since Moore has – at first – been presented as a version that will hark back to Ian Fleming’s novels and Sean Connery’s early films: there’s a sense of what a “classic Bond” is which the series can keep returning to. In the same way, once a brand has established a great character – or jingle, logo, or slogan – you can regularly bring them back.

Strong characters make commercial sense too. Research done by System1 using the IPA’s database showed that campaigns with a recurring character – what we call a Fluent Device – are more likely to boost market share, profit and new customers than those without. Having a vibrant, living character to follow helps grab the ‘broad-beam’ attention of the brain’s right hemisphere, as Orlando Wood explains in his book Lemon – and these “right-brained” features in advertising are linked to greater long-term effectiveness.

James Bond is an example of a great, instantly recognisable and fluent character – you need only look at the dozens of imitation Bonds to crop up over the years. Some of them have even come from advertising, like Rowan Atkinson’s comical secret agent for Barclaycard in the 1990s, which as Johnny English spawned three Bond parody films.

But the marketing lesson of Bond runs much deeper than that. James Bond isn’t just defined by the actor who plays him, but by all the other assets around him. Bond may be the core, but without the gun, the cars, M, Moneypenny, the villains and their lairs – and even how he likes his Martinis or that the famous line ‘the name is Bond’ – you’re left with a far more generic action hero: a private label Bond without the same appeal. Most great brands understand this and have a constellation of distinctive assets going way beyond the basic logo to their packaging, colour, shape, slogans, jingles and characters. Identifying them and using them well is part of the marketer’s craft – when should your assets be shaken, and should they ever be more fundamentally stirred?

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