A campaign is not a brand. Simples.

I love those little meerkats as much as the next man. It was a brilliant campaign. Such a refreshingly quirky and original voice in the usually rather safe, anodyne world of financial services marketing. And genuinely integrated too – with a fully functioning comparethemeerkat.com. You can still compare meerkats and buy Aleksandr’s autobiography or the full family of soft toys – Bogdan, Yakov, Sergei and the rest.

The campaign was a stunning success – a coup for both VCCP and the brand. It won awards. Comparethemarket.com became the fourth most visited insurance website in the UK. The brand’s sales doubled. In social media, Aleksandr acquired 700,000 fans on Facebook and 22,000 followers on Twitter. ‘Simples’ entered the popular vernacular in the way that many copywriters can only dream their work will. Go Compare felt compelled to inflict its rotund tenor on the nation.

But here’s my but… Imagine the Compare The Market brand without Aleksandr. If you take him and his little furry chums away, what’s left? What would you say about the brand? A campaign is not and never will be a brand and so now there’s a bit of a problem. The brand doesn’t stand for anything. Well, it does but that thing is…meerkats.

It’s a little like a stand up comedian bursting onto stage and captivating the audience with a brilliant opening two minutes and then…nothing. Or a band playing a blistering first couple of songs and then boring the audience senseless for the remaining 90 minutes.

I think this every time I see the newish Robert Webb ads. Surely I am not the only viewer to feel disappointed by them. Not only is the concept much weaker than ‘meerkats’ but they’re nothing like as funny. What’s worse is that there doesn’t seem to be a strong link – creatively or in terms of content – between Aleksandr and this new phase. Ostensibly there is one but it isn’t especially clear from the work.

This is where a strong brand earns its keep. A brand gives you something to talk about when that wildly successful, award-winning campaign has worn out. It gives you a narrative that can run from campaign to campaign. It provides something to unite your creative work. Crucially, it means your brand will be represent more than the metaphor or the gag or the brand ambassador you’re using in that particular quarter or even for that whole year. And, if you get your brand marketing right, it means that when you ask your customers what springs to mind when you mention your brand, they won’t say ‘a knitted monkey’ or ‘David Beckham’ or ‘meerkats’. Followed by a deafening silence.

  • Mark Tomkins, TDA

    Yes, a campaign is not a brand – ordinarily. But isn’t a price comparison site a very different beast? The truth is that there probably isn’t much to differentiate the key players – other than the character that fronts their ads. Which is perhaps why Confused.com is choosing to switch to a friendly robot for its new campaign. Scratch beneath the service and what would be your brand USP anyway? A promise to deliver results quicker than anyone else? More thoroughly than anyone else? Not really attention grabbers. I agree that the Webb extension of the campaign is not as good, but that’s more an issue of execution.  

    • Jonathan Staines

      Hi Mark. It’s precisely when there isn’t much to differentiate you that you need a potent brand. And your brand philosophy can drive the innovations that make your offer distinct. It’s a virtuous circle. The questions you ask (ie. what would be your USP anyway?) that need to be answered by any competitive business. 

      Like any other brand, a price comparison website can make its brand about whatever it wants. Perhaps it’s the only price comparison site that gives you combined discount if you buy in more than one category? Maybe it’s the only one that gives you a money-back guarantee? Maybe it’s the only one that gives you discounts in three leading retailers? Perhaps yours is the only site that’s won awards for it’s clarity and ease of use? Whatever it is, a brand needs a compelling story to tell.

      What’s the alternative? To be content not to differentiate and just to shout louder than your competitors?

      • Mark Tomkins, TDA

        Hi Jonathan

        Again, ordinarily I’d whole-heartedly agree; any competitive business does
        need to define a concrete USP.

        But what if that point of difference is so subtle that its lost on the
        general public?

        You have a choice.

        You can belligerently soldier on – because that’s what the big book of
        brand says. Eventually defining a rational point of difference; but
        not achieving any cut-through because people won’t notice your small
        nuance over a competitor’s.

        Or, you can put the brand book to one side. Identifying that this is a
        new and different arena. While everyone else is following the same
        furrow of thinking, you come at it from a completely different angle.

        We can all post-rationalise the meerkats forever and you can imagine the
        naysayers at the time: “Why would we confuse people with two websites? Meerkats are childish. Buying insurance is a grudge purchase, a serious purchase… we’re wasting people’s time. We need to be single-minded. People have a short attention span.” etc.

        Ultimately, it simply took a brave client to take a risk on some grin-worthy
        wordplay. And the rest was history. As you say, ‘a refreshingly quirky and original voice in the usually rather safe, anodyne world of financial services marketing.’

        It all came down to recall. People remembered a meerkat not a rational
        but miniscule brand differentiation.

        Just because it doesn’t fit into our conventional definitions of what a
        brand is, doesn’t mean that it isn’t a brand. You mention ‘combined
        discounts’, ‘money back guarantees’ etc; but a brand is also much
        more than a tactical offer.

        It only becomes an issue if our definition of a brand is too rigid.

        These days it needs to be much more fluid. Much like the GoCompare ads –
        which seem to have an exciting, and unpredictable, life of their own
        at the moment. And, in this case, proof of your point that sometimes
        it literally does pay to shout – or annoy – more than anyone


        • Jonathan Staines

          Hi Mark. I didn’t say it wasn’t a brand. I said it’s a brand that doesn’t represent anything except meerkats. The campaign was did a wonderful job in building awareness and driving revenue. What I was suggesting was that a brand makes a solid and sustainable foundation for advertising. It’s better than a brand being based on advertising.

          Recall is good but you haven’t landed a message just because you’ve landed your name or web address.

          It’s brilliant to get people’s attention and to have them remember your name but…

          1) It’s even better you have something to say once you’ve got their attention.
          2) You know what you’re going to say next

          A brand proposition will help with both of those.

          • Mark Tomkins, TDA

            Hi Jonathan

            I think the brand does represent more than meerkats – just not in a clobber you over the head ‘we buy any car’ way. That’s what sets it apart in the world of financial advertising.

            What about 118 118? Do they claim to be quicker, more efficient etc than anyone else? Or are they simply the ones with the most recall?

            What probably irks many people is that meerkats worked – without following the rules. The Michael Winner insurance ads are another good example.

            To muddy the debate further… can actually pretending not to have a brand be your brand? Quite possibly. The old rules don’t apply.

            The simple fact is that meetkats worked. So, to some degree the debate is a meaningless one.

            If we’re talking about the creative longevity of ad characters.. the PG chimps had a long run and that other monkey is still fronting Coco-Pops!


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