It Impacts the Brand

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I had the opportunity to talk with WPP’s MediaCom and some of its clients in NYC earlier this week at one of its "Fast Forward" events, and it was a really interesting conversation that changed my thinking.

My proposition to the group was absolute in the extreme; I asked them what these media experiences have in common?:

  • Texaco sponsors Milton Berle’s radio variety show
  • 7-Up runs Peter Max-like TV spots of glowing angels
  • FedEx inserts messages in front of programming on Hulu
  • "United Breaks Guitars" runs on YouTube courtesy of a disgruntled flier
  • A happy customer tweets about an item just bought on sale

Then I answered my own question: each experience is valued, whether explicitly or implicitly, because it impacts brands and therefore should be sought-after or ameliorated, depending on outlet, tone, reach, etc.

I said that I saw an unbroken chain of practice based on the belief that brands are "things" that are "out there," and that marketers must build and protect them. Whether described as exposure, interruption, engagement, entertainment, or whatever, the idea is as consistent as the names and mechanisms for realizing it have changed.

It’s a hundred year-old concept, yet it drives most creative and media buying decisions today much like it did in the early 1900s. And I said that I think it’s wrong.

That’s when the discussion started.

The immediate reaction was that I couldn’t be serious. Brands matter, by definition as well as aggregated experience. While sometimes the connections are imprecise there’s still no denying that awareness of brand attributes has an impact on purchasing decisions. Every mediated moment can’t be a direct marketing event. To suggest it would be, well, absolute in the extreme.

This is true. I went too far in making my case, making it appear as if I were some strict behaviorist in the B.F. Skinner model, and I’m not. I know that human beings are irrational, flawed beings with vibrant internal conversations that dictate not just our opinions but the very way we perceive and understand reality. But I do believe that our ideas about brands (and everything else) don’t exist independent of the inputs of our senses, and that the most accurate and true expression of those ideas are behavioral.

We do things, things get done to or around us, and our beliefs and opinions emerge therefrom.

Conversely, we marketers have spent over a century perfecting the approach that behaviors are nothing but channels or triggers to those higher states of mind and soul. While we talk about behavior these days (thanks to the prompt from digital media) we still focus on understanding brands as those ultimate mind states. 

So my suggestion wasn’t that those mind states don’t exist or matter, but that we have it bass-ackwards regarding how they are formed and expressed.

We can’t confirm those mind states separate from behavior, but rather only suggest and allude to them (and to any connection to reality). We have to ask about them in order to perceive them, so they’re only sensed indirectly. Worse, while all of us have opinions about a zillion different things, those opinions emerge, morph, and dissolve in real-time within the little black boxes of our minds. Brand "positions" and "associations" and any other measures are really just snapshots, or moments, that we draw out of that chaos. You have to ask a consumers about their perceptions of brands in order to get them to see them and pass judgments…and then extrapolate from those answers to perceive connections to subsequent purchasing decisions.

This is why I don’t think there’s a there "out there" (or "in" there) that we should worry about referencing unless we can define it in terms of the behavioral inputs and outputs thereinto or outcomes therefrom. Our 100 year-old approach is flawed because we think we speak to brands when we’re really just talking to ourselves. 

The evidence of this flawed approach is all around us but we’re too busy trying to prove it’s not true: consumers are harder to reach, more difficult to convince, and nearly impossible to keep loyal, and this comes in spite of our aggregated experience and endless waves of new media campaigns. Corporate reputations are at all-time lows, and brand names are struggling to maintain premium pricing (or even staying on shelf at retailers). A century of worrying about what people think and feel instead of do has rendered the meaning of "intangible asset" to something just shy of "doesn’t exist," and led the branding business off the edge of a cliff. 

Like I said, though, it was clear through the discussion over dinner that I’d pushed my POV too far. It was really helpful to have smart advertising-savvy people talk me back from the edge of that cliff. 

After all, I claim to focus on reality and by the main course I was acknowledging that brand attributes, functions, look-and-feel, display and support absolutely, definitively matter…but only when they matter (i.e. when something happens). I saw opportunity where I hadn’t before.

This led to a collaboration conclusion worth riffing upon: why don’t brands do things that matter more clearly, more often, and more responsibly? Marketers could stop trying to influence the "what if" and instead focus branding resources on "the here and now." If we saw behaviors as the expressions of brands, not just the channels for them, it wouldn’t negate the importance of emotions and associations and all the other qualities of human experience that matter…rather, it would give us a better handle on delivering them. 

I couldn’t stop thinking about the conversation after I returned to my hotel, so I came up with three ways this new approach to brands might apply to media buying/monitoring practices:

  • First, stop imagining connections, and any rationale (or supporting ROI fantasy) about how some brilliant creative idea "contributes to the brand" or "makes the brand relevant to popular culture" should get flushed down the toilet. Demand more of your strategy…observable fact is far more reliable and true than implicit inspiration, so think about your plans as if you were charting weather patterns or sports scores instead of writing the narrative to a detective novel. How would things change if you were plotting causally-related consumer interactions? Again, internal states matter, but people learn and remember through actions, and consuming some aspirationally wonderful content is more like witnessing it, not internalizing it.
  • Secondly, fit content to context. This is a weird idea that requires more thinking and validation, but it seems to me that the guts of what a brand communicates have to be focused on the consumer — who, what, where, when, and why — more so than on the brand itself. So when FedEx runs a bumper ad at the start of an SNL short on Hulu, it’s telling the viewer something utterly devoid of meaning, relevance, or utility to that moment of consumption. It’s a gotcha that can’t be avoided, focused all about the brand and unrelated to the consumer. Ditto for any social media conversation that elevates talking over delivery of anything commercially useful; it’s no great accomplishment to "friend" brands or host conversations about nothing at all, and it certainly isn’t delivering any brand-relevant content where, when, and to whom it might matter. Distraction is no better than interruption. It might be worse.
  • My third thought is that every communication, however you categorize it, should have a purpose…not defined by the branding message it contains or alludes to, but the ultimate deliverable of the activity. I can’t get off the conclusion that every activity is direct marketing and that it should have a clear prompt beyond "think fondly about the joke in this spot" or "visit our website." If there’s no there out there, then everything we spend money to do should have some discernible connection to making money for us. It won’t always be clear, but shouldn’t that be the first question we ask and attempt to measure instead of the last?

It was a great event (after a similar session at MediaCom’s London office a few months ago) and I respect them for engaging with me and their clients in such a substantive and enjoyable dialogue. We didn’t agree on everything, but at least on one point we were in lock-step:

Asking intriguing questions means you’re participating in finding smart answers.

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