Advertising Climate Change – solving the square peg, round hole dilemma

Jon Bradshaw is the director of brand traction, a marketing consultancy for the modern age. He has over 20 years of experience in marketing and brand building. None of which is of any use any more. There are 24 metaphors in this article. Jon recognises he has a problem.

How to re-engage with your audience in the new marketing landscape

In the first half of this diatribe, I explained my view that the changes in the media landscape are reducing and may even remove our ability to interrupt the audience with our brand messages. This led to the conclusion that advertising has to evolve into something that people actually want or need in their lives in order to survive. Something they will pull into their world, rather than have us push it. I believe that as well as working out what the brand wants to say and where it wants to say it, we need to answer a third question; why would the audience want to engage with it? In part two I will explore this idea of why in more detail.

My view is that marketing has developed and evolved into four different approaches or nodes. And that one of the key issues with managing audiences and engagement today is that people don’t recognise the existence of these four approaches and the inherent differences between them in terms of how and why consumers engage. We end up trying to fit square peg advertising into round media holes. In so doing we risk losing the audience and consequently our livelihoods.

These four nodes or approaches to doing the job of advertising in my view are;

• story telling
• relationship building
• system building
• ecommerce

I’ll explain each one briefly, as in isolation I hope they’re fairly easy to understand. Crucially I will give a view on WHY consumers might choose to engage with this node. I’ll discuss how ‘new’ media affects the approach in good and bad ways. I’ll then talk about what I think we can conclude from this seemingly trite observation.

Story Telling must be entertaining

Historically marketing has used a ‘story telling’ approach. Brands create stories (or ads) about themselves. Consumers have engaged when it’s been informative and entertaining. The best ads work when we create entertaining, unexpected stories people can relate to. This is the mechanism most under threat from the decline of interruption as an option. The only reason for the audience to choose to engage is if the advertising is entertaining. That’s why as an industry we prize creativity so much. Why when we actually do the hard work on analysing effectiveness we find that ads that win creative awards are also often more effective. The more entertaining the ad is, the more people will choose to engage with it, beyond the forced intrusion of the ad into their schedule.

The issue is that this form is reliant on the push mechanism. I can count the number of ads people will actually choose to seek out and sacrifice their leisure time to watch on the fingers of one hand. One hand that’s lost a few fingers. We might like to kid ourselves that our ads are so highly creative that they are genuine entertainment. I certainly have. Given that places like HBO spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to be entertaining and don’t always succeed, I think we might be somewhat delusional.

Integrated branded content is one solution to the issue. Can we make the brand part or all of the broadcast show? Networks and media owners are starting to grapple with this issue. I’m a fan of this approach when done well. When the brand has a real reason to be part of the show. When the show genuinely reflects what the brand wants to say. Some of the Masterchef integration has been first class. Some of it clunky and intrusive. Shows like Iconoclasts and the amazing stuff from Red Bull Media house show it is possible to do long form brand content, worthy of a place in a commercial schedule.

 

Advertising Coca Cola

‘Digital’ media also offers up some real opportunities to counteract some of these issues. In recent years we’ve see the rise of a more participatory approach to story telling, like the “Share a Coke” and “Best Job in the World” campaigns. I think this more cognitive, behavioural approach to marketing has huge potential. If the audience is shrinking, how do we have a deeper impact with a smaller group of people?  Or encourage sharing and ‘virality’? The maths works. It is, however much more complex than the old ‘make ad, air ad’ approach. Nothing strikes more fear into the heart of the marketer than the agency saying, “don’t worry this one will go viral!”

There’s also a real risk that in the search for an engaging participatory approach we lose sight of the brand proposition. In the rush to be interactive we often forget that we are still in story-telling mode and that the story we are telling is the carefully constructed one of what the brand wants to say. Or we lose sight of how hard it actually is to get consumers to participate. Clicking ‘like’ is hardly a huge step on from passive media consumption. In some cases, we lose sight of the plot all-together. A tasty iSnack 2.0 anyone? All too often the mechanism cart gets so far in front of the brand horse, the brand is all but lost.

iSnack ad image

The owned media space also gives us a great platform to develop brand owned content and be ‘always on’. Can we command an audience through regularly producing and airing great content on our owned digital channel or site? Brand as publisher and ‘content marketing’ are certainly hot topics right now and rightly so.

Always on content, however, is hard, uncharted territory, many of us are unprepared for. Brands and agencies are not set up to deliver the sheer volume of content required to fill an ‘owned’ channel. Being genuinely entertaining, week in week out, to secure regular traffic to your owned space, is far from easy. Look how well some of our broadcast channels aren’t doing at this very game. At another time I’ll also outline my view that there is no such thing as a free media lunch. I believe there’s a cost to securing an audience, through whatever channel. Owned media audiences aren’t free. Look at the millions Foxtel, Nine, Seven and Ten spend promoting their own channels if you need indicative evidence.

Once you’re not entertaining in your owned space, however, you’re dead. The old approach of careful crafting between client and creative, of ad testing, high cost production and rock star directors cannot survive this world. Adam Ferrier recently asked in Encore magazine, if the days of big production budgets were over and if that was a loss? I wonder if instead of spending $1 million on one precisely constructed ad we might see brands spending the same money but getting 100 three-minute pieces of content that fills their channel.

The risks here are all the same. In all this proliferating and additional complexity, in this additive world, the job didn’t change. We still have to powerfully communicate what it is the brand has to say. It cannot be a balancing act between being entertaining and being ‘on brand’. It has to be both or nothing. This has always been a creative tension. Not always a healthy one. Certainly not one that has always been resolved. I refer you to any boring ad you ever saw. Or the raft of ads you like, but cannot remember what on earth they are selling or saying.

Nothing exacerbates my marketing OCD more than people talking about their latest ad as a ‘film’. I don’t make films, sadly, I make ads. The distinction is crucial and commercial. The pressure to be genuinely entertaining enough to command an audience can only make this tension even more difficult. As the need to be entertaining in our story telling rises, as the media in which we broadcast them gets complex, so the need for razor sharp brand strategy also rises or we risk forgetting why advertising exists in the first place. Being creative, being entertaining is an executional necessity, but it’s not a raison d’etre.

Relationship Management must deliver a reward

The second ‘marketing node’ is relationship management. Service businesses in particular have long used a relationship management approach and rewarded consumers in order to drive retention. They have developed quite a science and an infrastructure behind it. As well as a raft of specialist agencies servicing the need. What many brands who have tried to operate in this space have failed to recognise is that the audience, in return for agreeing to a relationship with you, demands some type of reward. If you want to ping me messages every week, I want something back from you. That’s probably not just a link to the YouTube clip of your latest ad, or a happy birthday on my birthday. To truly build relationships with consumers there has to be a value exchange. We are no longer in the entertainment space. We are in the realm of reward. That changes everything.

Technology has obviously had a profound impact in this space, allowing the data to drive apparently tailored personalised messaging, hence hopefully deeper engagement. A bit like content marketing, ‘big data’ is a hot topic, but knowing who I am, where I am and what I like isn’t good enough. You still need to use it to give me stuff I want!

It’s much easier to do data-driven relationship marketing when you own the billing and transaction relationship. Banks, telcos and other service businesses automatically own rafts of data upon which to base their relationship campaigns and offers. Most FMCG brands don’t have that luxury. Hence they haven’t really developed deep expertise in this field.

As the big data providers gain traction however, this becomes a much more real option for product marketers. Having worked in both service and consumer goods it has always struck me how poorly developed the story telling skills of many service brands are and conversely how appalling product brands are at retaining those consumers they have through relationship management and the delivery of reward.

What’s really interesting to me is seeing some major product brands getting into this space. Coke have developed a portfolio driven, multi brand loyalty space in Coke rewards. I think this is great, ground-breaking stuff, however simple it may look if you’re a bank marketer. I know just how hard it is to pull off portfolio-led initiatives in brand led business. To do that in the relationship / reward space is even harder.  It may be an acorn right now, but it’s really no surprise that one of the world’s most creative and innovative product brands is leading the charge on product relationship marketing.

System Building must create utility

Mobility and the rise of the ‘app’ in particular have driven real growth in a new marketing ‘approach’. This is the third node or the notion of system building or software development as marketing. Nick Law of R/GA talks far more authoritatively than I ever will about the rise of software as media and how that fundamentally changes the nature of the marketing that flows through this channel. I subscribe to Nick’s view of the world and believe this new approach of all of them has the greatest potential to change what we do. In my opinion, getting this ‘channel’, if we can call it that, right relies squarely on the notion of utility. If you want me to use your marketing rather than consume it you better make it useful, or you will be deleted. Commonwealth Bank have been doing some nice work in this space with their Effie winning Investorville campaign and their Property Guide app. Real usefulness that also delivers real brand messages.

Gamification example

Now some of you might be muttering the word gamification into your developer’s or hipster’s beard right now. Surely Investorville is a game? Obviously there are elements of gaming inherent in the design. They make it fun and engaging. But in my opinion gaming is not why this campaign works. It works, I believe, because it’s useful. Try selling Investorville as a product for people to play on their Xbox and you’ll see just how good a game it isn’t.

Gamification for me is mostly just another modern aspect of interactive story telling. If it isn’t entertaining it won’t succeed. Again, like HBO make content, EA make games. They are the new competition for consumer attention, not the agency down the road. Done badly, brand apps are just another form of lack-lustre story telling with no real reason for the consumer to engage, gamified or not. Done well however, brand apps and software create genuinely (often socially) useful applications that consumers will choose to pull into their lives.

In his article for Wharton’s ‘Future of Advertising’ program, “11 big trends that will reshape advertising in 2012 and beyond”, Max Kalehoff argues that a key trend is that ‘successful advertising will be about service.’ I think he’s right. This is a whole brave new world of marketing we have yet to master.

eCommerce must make transaction easier

The final node, which really needs little explanation is e-commerce. This space is currently dominated by the B2C brands that are increasingly using e-retail as a means of vertical integration by proxy. The likes of the big retailers bemoan the competition issues created by a globally connected shopping environment, but it is the new reality. A bit like the changing media landscape and the warming planet, we have to accept it, deal with it and move on. In my opinion, the harder Coles and Woolies push the FMCG suppliers on margin, the more and more likely it becomes that the product brands join in the e-commerce transformation. Sure the barriers and logistics are hard, but they are removable, if the incentive is high enough. The stakes rise daily. In the UK last month, my alma mater Diageo launched its first real online ecommerce site. Selling direct to consumer, bypassing the powerful supermarket chains and effectively vertically integrating its business. Another small acorn, but the way ahead seems clear.

The WHY is different at each node

Each of the four nodes then works in a very different way. And is perhaps best suited to a different marketing ‘job’.

Advertising approach or node

Story telling MUST be entertaining in order to acquire new consumers. Relationship management MUST be rewarding to keep consumers loyal. System building MUST create utility in order to deepen relationships with existing consumers. E-commerce HAS to make transacting simple, easy and convenient.

Hyper Connected Advertising

Those of you who work as specialists in some of these disciplines may be looking curiously at the egg I am teaching you to suck, but there’s one further step that I think makes this approach genuinely interesting. That’s what happens if we connect it all together. I’m going to call this, with my tongue firmly in my cheek I might add, ‘the hyper-connected advertising system’. Here’s what happens if we start to think systemically about the whole rather than the parts. Let’s follow a hypothetical advertising development journey in our new hyper-connected systemic world.

We start with a story-telling approach, not radically different to what many brands are doing today. But we make it two way, interactive, telescopic and always on. We begin to collect the most basic data about who the consumer is, as they click onto our owned media channel to see more of our content. We add to this our relationship approach, inviting our consumer to receive rewards for telling us more about themselves. We collect more data. We use that data to push more relevant, entertaining content and stories into their feed. A mutually sustaining system.

Now we know a fair bit about our end users, so we build and get them to use our brand utility app. This transforms the amount of data we have about the base and further deepens and enhances our entertainment and reward strategies. Finally we take the last step and begin to transact with the base directly. Our data infrastructure is now substantial.

In building the ecosystem, we’ve attracted new consumers, made them loyal, kept them active and secured direct access to their wallet. Along the way we’ve also reduced our reliance on paid media as a channel and third parties for retail and distribution. Sure we’ve spent a lot on data management and software development, but we are spending less on production, media and trading terms. We’ve changed the business model, but most importantly we’ve retained the audience and they, if you remember, are ALL that counts.

Data insights for brands

Final Thoughts

The consequences of this for brands, agencies and media owners are transformational. This is advertising climate change. At a later date, I will explore what some responses to this new world might be, but for now the key observation is that unless we start to wrestle with the challenge of why consumers should bother to listen to what we want to say, they might just stop listening all together. Dramatically reducing the amount of fossil fuel we consume is not easy in an oil-driven economy. Dramatically reducing our reliance on interruption is pretty difficult with our current levels of thought leadership and a fragmented brand and agency model. Change will require a level of systemized, integrated thought that is currently beyond many brands and agencies. Only the best will survive, but change we must.

If this all sounds a little theoretic and hard to grasp, I’d leave you with a final thought. The best brands in the world today are already doing this. God I hope they don’t call it ‘hyper connected advertising’, but my model is based on observation and admiration of what the best in class in our business are doing. Not drowning in the rising tides of marketing climate change, but waving, thriving and growing. Brands like Nike, Nespresso, Gatorade and Apple are all moving rapidly towards this approach. It’s not just possible, it’s happening.

Unless all of us accept the new complexity and try and make advertising that consumers will actually be happy to pull into their lives, our business and our profession may well sink under the rising waters of technological advancement and the on demand media revolution.

Like finding the solutions to climate change, we cannot solve these problems with yesterday’s thinking, or through small step incrementalism. We need radical wholesale change. It starts with us all accepting we have got a problem. Interestingly one of the key symptoms of that problem, is the over reliance on metaphor and analogy. I am on the road to recovery. Are you?

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About Jon Bradshaw

Jon Bradshaw is the director of brand traction, a marketing consultancy for the modern age. He has over 20 years of experience in marketing and brand building. Connect with Jon on LinkedIn here.
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