I was at a talk last Thursday given by Helene York, who directs the Bon Appetit Management Company Foundation. At one point in the talk, she said something that caught my attention: Bon Appetit operates 400 food service locations and serves more than 80 million meals every year, but you can’t buy a meal from Bon Appetit. They operate food service locations at colleges and universities, on corporate campuses, and in museums or sports complexes—they buy food from suppliers, hire and train the kitchen staff who prepare it, and run the front-of-house, all on the behalf of another organization. They are an invisible brand.

This reminded me of the BASF commercial, shown above. Their slogan is, “We don’t make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better.” These commercials mystify me: Why advertise to a public that cannot purchase your product? 

A lot of corporate advertising has this problem. General Electric advertises products you can’t buy. The New York Stock Exchange advertises a service most of us won’t use. (They’ve abanandoned “The World Puts Its Stock In Us,” which was an excellent example of a literal slogan, for the blander “One Market, Infinite Possibilities.”) Boeing advertises too. (I love the Boeing ads: Despite the generic third-world-diversity montages, they’re beautiful, tightly packaged promotional pieces that are optimistic, uplifting, and imaginative, with a touch of can-do attitude. The ads perfectly demonstrate the slogan—”Forever New Frontiers”—and the slogan perfectly caps the ads. I could—and probably will—devote a whole post to the history of Boeing’s logo.) 

GE, Boeing, and the NYSE, at least, are corporations that still connect, at some level, with consumers. You can buy GE lightbulbs (or not); you can fly on Boeing aircraft (or not); you can trade on the NYSE (or not). But BASF is the ultimate invisible brand: Not only is there no way for me to choose to purchase a BASF product (or not), but I may have the choice between buying between several brands from several different companies that all use the same BASF product. There is no way for a consumer to directly interact with the company.

(And the advertising isn’t really meant for consumers; it’s meant for the people who are going to make decisions. But why advertise to consumers? As this blog points out, it is unlikely that any Pentagon official high-up enough to make purchasing decisions about aircraft will be riding the Metro to work.)

Interestingly, it seems that BASF advertises for similar reasons as Target: Both are selling goods obtainable elsewhere and therefore need to differentiate themselves from competitors. An advertising executive’s take on the matter:

“A better way to differentiate is through personal services like R&D support or on-site field services. Not only are service programs harder to duplicate, but they’re virtually impossible to compare on an apples-to-apples basis. This is why becoming known as an innovative, service-oriented company is the ultimate differentiating strategy. Also, such a reputation connotes the anticipation of future services. If a customer thinks you are going to be more capable in a certain area, then you are. If he thinks you’re more innovative, you are.” – Robert Lamons

So BASF is advertising in part because they have nothing to advertise (which is funny, right?). They’re kind of like Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in that way (not the Skylink-has-wipers part, the where-is-their-competition part) because both companies provide fungible goods or services. Therefore the brand image they create becomes all the more important. It’s like they’re struggling to provide something physical, to break out of the constraints of invisibility. Every iPod that Apple sells is a physical advertisement for Apple, both for the purchaser and for those around her; BASF doesn’t have that luxury. So we’re left with feel-good commercials advertising a company we’ll never interact with, in a desperate attempt to produce a tangible product where none exists.