A brand can own any idea, but can it live up to the ideal?

Any brand could have used the line. But could it have lived up to the ideal?

Any brand could have used the line. But could it have lived up to the ideal?

My friend and sometimes co-conspirator Will Burns had a great post in Forbes this week arguing that brands too often kill a great advertising idea because it isn’t “ownable.” And this is true. Brands often reject great positions, taglines and ad campaigns with the reasoning that their competition could make the same claim.

My 35 years in the business tells me that reaction occurs for one of three reasons.

  • Someone took a too-traditional marketing course in grad school.
  • Someone forgot that communication and creativity have the power to make an idea ownable.
  • Deep down someone knows that they can’t actually live up to the idea.

Which leads me to a point more important than whether or not a driving brand idea is ownable. But rather can the brand prove its right to use and own an idea? Can it deliver on the promise? Is it expressing a belief that is genuine?

So while I agree with Will’s premise that “ownable” is a bad criterion for rejecting a creative idea, I’d have to disagree with some of his examples. I don’t think that Reebok or Adidas could ever have owned “Just Do It.” Why? Because neither inherently cared or felt as strongly about enabling athletes as Nike did.

Adi Dassler was a cobbler. Yes he made Jesse Owens’ track shoes, but he also made boots for the Nazis. Adidas emerged from a different place than Nike.

Reebok founder Paul Fireman was a salesman and a distributor. He may have gotten in and out of a golf cart but he was never an athlete. Just an opportunist.

Phil Knight, on the other hand, was running home seven miles a day from his high school job tabulating sports for the Oregonian. He knew what it meant to be a runner.

In another of Will’s examples he suggests that Microsoft could have taken “Think different.” Maybe they could have claimed “Think big.” Or even “Think open.” But they could not have taken “Think different” because it wasn’t in their DNA. In fact they wanted their customers to fit the mold, not break out of it.

Same holds true in other categories. JetBlue’s tagline is “You above all.” Anyone could say it, which means it’s not ownable. But could any other airline live up to it? Certainly not American. Not Delta. Not United.

Keep going. “The Ultimate Driving Machine.”Lexus? Cadillac? “The Whole Picture.” Works for The Guardian. But who else? “Gives You Wings.” And it’s attached to a bull not a bird. But could any other caffeine based drink have used it?

I wonder if when a client rejects an idea for not being ownable they’re really saying something else. They’re suggesting that an agency hasn’t figured out the very best way to express their true essence. What they are. What they stand for. What they believe. What matters most to their consumer and community.

If we still believe at all in brands, the power of words, and crisp, creative definitions — despite an age of utility, social media and instant access to more (maybe) important criteria — then we should develop ideas that can be owned not because a brand said it first, but because a brand has the power and will to demonstrate it each and every day.



Very nicely put. Here at Boxman Studios I wrote the line "Just add people." It's not brain surgery, but at our core that's what we want our clients to do. We design, manufacture, and deploy immersive shipping container environments for brands across America. It seemed like the right line when we launched the company in 2009 - and it still holds true today. Sometimes you get lucky.