“An extraordinary, almost unimaginable sequence of events” says Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England commenting on the past weeks’ goings on in the global financial markets. Which do you prefer – the culture of blame, or the culture of coping? Weak people immediately point the finger at others, stronger people move on and work out how to make things work, develop products customers need and communication strategies to help consumers realise that’s what they want, and build genuine underlying performance in their businesses.
In the FT today, the question is asked – is the MBA culture responsible? From the country that has chosen Sarah Palin as a legitimate candidate for president in waiting, one might question the decision making processes that got her there, and it’s too easy to blame the overt complexity built into the debt instruments that have brought the world’s capital markets to a state of chaos. Palin is a nutter, obviously, but I think the true characteristic of disaster is the ability of executives to take things at face value. By ‘branding’ toxic assets as ‘debt instruments’ it’s easy not to look under the skin, do the due diligence, and frankly bullshit past the next quarter’s earnings to worry about the next crisis.
What can we learn from all this? One point of view about branding is that it is only meaningful if supported by a set of values that a brand is credible in, performs to, stands for and stands by. For lots of products and services, this is hard to achieve, if the product doesn’t work, for example, or the service promise isn’t delivered. One enormous impact of the internet is enabling consumers to share issues about brands. These can be both negative and positive vibes. Brand owners now have to develop strategy and process internally and externally to manage this. And they are challenging their support networks (of branding consultants, PR people, agencies and technology partners) to help.
Ad people talk about campaigns, and hitting the message home and how to unravel the narrative in linear way. Consumers don’t think about this at all. They tend to see ads in passing, remember some of them, and if the ad is strong enough, may even remember the name of the brand. This works well enough, but if the brand doesn’t have a set of values to stand for, by and for consumers to believe in, they won’t necessarily hand over cash for the stuff. Everyone now likes the idea of branded utilities – virtual test driving, travel advice, holiday planners, Christmas planners and so on – as the necessary adjunct for consumers to build everyday experience of a brand in some way (beyond running in the shoes or actually eating the chocolate.) If you’ve worked in the world of the web for a while, creating interactive experience and regular customer interaction, you might say – hang on, that’s what we’ve been doing for years, but suddenly it’s become branded.
That’s what happens when the ad people get involved. If we give it a name it’s easier to believe in. I sympathise with both sides, if sides is the right term to use. Having run both ad agency and web agency organisations, you get privileged insight. The fact remains though, that unless there is genuine usefulness (either from entertainment or information value) the measurement of such things will remain in the world of wool. In the old world, if the brand didn’t stand for anything, (or indeed, as much more likely in the regulatory environment we now operate in, couldn’t), the advertising itself had to deliver the substantiation. Think glamorous cigarette ads from the 80s. In the branded utility world, you can’t just make it up. There has to be genuine interaction and exchange for consumers to see a benefit of spending, rather than wasting, time with the brand. This is where our creative and tech brains should be focused. If we get it right, and know how to get it done, there’s a new marketing nirvana to be had.