Beware of Cat: the perils of attaching your brand to fleeting amusements

True story:

The CEO of a Korean automobile corporation flew to Toronto for the first presentation by his ad agency. The company was new to the Canadian market, and the agency, keen to impress, had spent weeks sweating the creative. And yet…the CEO sat in inscrutable silence for the entire pitch, seemingly immune to the energy and charm of the senior team and the ideas they’d worked so hard to develop.

When it was all over, the group leaned in for feedback. Which concept did the CEO prefer? Each one, they explained, had the potential to become a viral sensation, in the tradition of talking babies or pretty much anything involving celebrities, zombies or cats.

The CEO’s response (which, legend has it, took the agency a few days to decode) was as concise as it was cryptic.

Pointing to the collar of his shirt, he said firmly: “Top button.”


Anyone who has ever owned a dress shirt knows that if you don’t get the top button right, the whole garment goes askew: it doesn’t look or fit as it should.

The way the CEO saw it, a brand is a lot like a dress shirt, with the top button being the smart, sustainable idea on which the brand – and ultimately the business – is built. For this CEO, no execution – no matter how clever or crowd-pleasing – was an end unto itself.

In today’s age of amusement, hitching your brand to an outlandish or sensational creative premise seems like the magic bullet for likes and page views. But if the strategic message driving it is not meaningful or consistent, the communications will be fleeting and forgettable.

Unto itself, a raccoon wearing a suit and a monocle seems like a disposable amusement. But through the strategic lens of ‘refinement’ – reinforced in everything from Porter Airlines’ stylish uniform design and upscale snacks to the classy tone and manner of its print executions and radio spokesperson, the raccoon becomes a convincing brand ambassador for the notion of ‘flying refined’.

As attention spans and media spends continue to splinter, it’s more important than ever that communications be anchored in a driving idea that comes through in every aspect of brand marketing. No matter what point on the communications chain people access your brand, the primary message they receive should be consistent.

GE – another brand that achieves this singularity – is notable because its positioning strategy provides the thread that connects the company’s many business interests. ‘Imagination at work’ aptly communicates GE’s dedication to life-enhancing innovation – whether in the field of aviation, medical equipment or household appliances. With such a powerful linchpin, GE’s top button is impeccably fastened.

Giving considered attention to the top button is especially important in a landscape where communications are not just consumed – but CREATED – at breakneck speed. Marketers lament that consumers are bombarded with content but fail to consider the flip side of the equation: the effort required to create the onslaught. Working across multiple channels on ever-tighter deadlines, even the most resourceful and prolific communicator needs a compass: the ‘top button’ that guides their efforts. Without one, the ingenious execution that does manage to break through and find its audience may do so in vain.

While no brand can afford to make its message disposable in favour of amusement, ignoring amusement, the shiny gem that draws people in, is not an option either. The top button – the brand’s defining value – must co-exist with amusement to transcend ‘likes’, create meaningful connections, and spur sales.

At the heart of every powerhouse brand and successful business is a uniquely articulated and emotionally stimulating proposition that drives everything you do – from the tone of your catalogue copy to the strategy behind your wackiest, feline-inspired Youtube video.

Is your top button done up right?

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