In the classic sci-fi picture and cautionary tale the Terminator, the action is built around the lead-up to a date when the automated global defense system Skynet goes sentient.
Once Skynet goes live, it proceeds to wipe out most of the population of Earth. Robots develop artificial intelligence, make their own decisions and decide to get mediaeval on humanity’s ass.
The movie, one of my all-time favourites, was made in the 1980s. The date that this apocalyptic event was forecast to happen was years in the future – the impossibly unforeseeable August 29, 1997.
As a self-confessed geek, I recall that August 29 reasonably well. It was partly sunny, I popped to Tesco for some groceries, the holiday photos came back from the lab, the Pentium P75 computer with 32MB of RAM gave up the ghost and a hideous jumper arrived from Boden.
Nothing of the Skynet kind happened of course (though my microwave oven nearly caught fire and automated tills were quietly in development somewhere in an R&D facility).
More than 15 years later we are witnessing the emergence of a new type of stealth sentience. This new awakening of consciousness is unlikely to force us into rags, caves and the use of DIY rayguns, but it is already having a significant effect on our day to day experience.
I’m talking about the sentience of brands.
Companies that could previously comfortably claim to own and manage their brands have now ceded ownership to the consumers that choose or choose not to shop with them. Try as they may to avoid this and manage their way out of it, brands are now hostages to fortune. Once tethered to the predictability of a marketing budget, an advertising spend and reasonably sure-fire (if unremarkable) ROI, brands and their managers now have no such certainty. In fact there is no longer such thing as a brand manager. In their place are brand shepherds. The way in which a brand is perceived varies enormously and pulsates often on a minute by minute basis. If a business or an individual take a wrong turn, it puts itself at the mercy of the new courts of popular opinion, social networks. Twitter can make or destroy a brand in hours. It can deconstruct a cynical ploy. It can embrace a carefully crafted stunt. It can ignore an expensive gimmick. The days of predictable returns and careful management are completely gone. Maintaining a brand has become infinitely more complex and altogether conversational.
“You’re advertising at me? Could you be any more patronizing?”
There are many men and women with yachts, $300 coiffs, beach houses in the Bahamas and cashmere onesies that have made their fortunes off the pedaling of approaches to developing brand strategies. Their languid, chin-scratching consultancy (second only to footballers in hourly rates), their 385 page text books with embossed titles, their wiltingly expensive 30 minute speaker slots on the international rubber chicken circuit, are all in my view worthless. Brand strategy is dead. Brand sentience is the new “lucrative insight”.
What do I mean? Over the decade, I’ve been involved in the development of countless marketing and communications strategy documents: key messages, stakeholders, SWOT analyses, formulations of core communications frameworks for forthcoming policy implementation.
I’ve slaved over these hideous documents, produced flowcharts that have made me dream of that 60s game Twister, unpicked comb binders in the early hours to put in the useless chapter on “speaker platforms”, had the moments of cold panic before the presentation to the Board and experienced the high-fiving exhilaration of their approval, after which I’ve walked back to my desk, closed the 187 page document, popped it on the shelf and never opened it again.
Controversial though it may sound, marketing, PR and communications strategy as it once was is a load of bollocks. Let me explain why:
“Time kills all notions”
Marketing and PR strategies can be outdated in seconds. Look at brands like Apple, Findus, BlackBerry, Tesco, G4S, BA, Ryan Air. Events and sentiments overtake the finest of plans in hours. Back in mediaeval times, scribes used palimpsests – manuscripts that were scraped back and rewritten on. The internet is an electronic palimpsest. The difference is that it can be changed in milliseconds.
Journalists are wise to, and hardened by, hype. The sort of overblown jargon that has littered press releases and advertising for years sends these lovingly and expensively crafted missives straight to the bin. Consumers are similarly hardened. TV and video on demand, movie downloads, the magic of iPlayer and ad filtering software are all frequently-used techniques for purging us of preachy advertising messages. We are, studies show, far more likely to make buying decisions based on the views of our friends or other trusted reviewers than we are to choose based on advertising. New services like Reevoo and BazaarVoice that place reviews on shopping websites adjacent to the products have a significant positive impact on buying decisions. Facebook’s venture in Graph Search (allowing us to interrogate the views of our our friends and their friends) is another major blow to advertisers. Authenticity and sense of belonging to (or serving) a community are paramount.
“What’s interesting about this brand is….”
It’s the anecdotes that surround a brand that make it interesting – best set out in its storytelling. Debenhams selling swimwear to older woman is less interesting than the launch of the “Grankini”. PC World selling a few toy robots is less interesting than launching “Roboshop”. Dixons selling more DVD players is less interesting than RIP, VCR. HMV selling CDs is less interesting than a public debate about songs and films that ought to have Listed Status (like historic buildings – protecting tampering or terrible remakes). We want our buying decisions to carry a story with them. We like to tell each other things – and if a brand shepherd can get his or her product at the heart of that story, they’re made.
“’Awesome’ is not a description that lends itself to cauliflowers or productivity apps”
Hipsters are killing hype. By flogging terms like awesome and super-exciting to death, they are paving the way (unknowingly) to a more reasoned, nuanced and interesting description of things. Set up a search column in Tweet Deck and you’ll see new tweets with the word “awesome” fly by faster than you could ever read them (think the green letters that rain down the screen in the Matrix). Shouty ads that proclaim “PCs FOR ONLY TWO NINE NINE” are doing the same. All of these Nigel Farage-style shouts owe their origins to the key message documents that are slaved over by marketeers and their hideously expensive consultants for hours and hours. There’s a very simple alternative. Spend a bit of time, work out what you want your brand to be famous for, write it down, and hey presto. Then, get on and make sure that quite a bit of what you do or say links back to that short statement.
“It’s conversations that make us human”
Shouting at people – one way communication – is done for. Look at what happens on forums like Twitter. The brands that try to “tell” get nothing out of it. The brands that ask, chat, provoke, amuse and more (what’s called “showing” in narrative terms) have a much easier run – and get their appreciative followers to do the work for them. Several hundred – or occasionally several hundred thousand – new potential customers are but a well-earned retweet away. A marketeer’s quiet mantra should be “My kingdom for a retweet.”. The value of a good retweetable 140 characters will dwarf the value of an expensive ad.
Very soon we’ll be scrubbing the term social media from the dictionary and replace it with “conversation” which is exactly what it is and ought to be.
“The snake oil that is “SEO””
“SEO” – what IS that? It seems to be something that lots of people make a huge amount of money out of. Isn’t it being interesting and clear? Isn’t it about writing something in a comprehensible way? Isn’t it about looking at what the top stories are on Google News and writing something for potential publication that gives your brand a shot at being published by time-poor, always-on-deadline hacks? SEO is a figleaf term that makes you believe, because of the price tag, that being all very technical and clever about the way you configure your online assets will bring you more customers. What a load of rubbish. Forget SEO and think instead about spending the money you save on people with creative, conversational ideas who can write well, tell good jokes and spot something of universal appeal like magpies. You’ll thank me.
“You’re not “a key player in the global adhesive solutions industry”. You sell stickers, you jerks.”
Kill the aggrandizement. Say what you do, don’t dress it up. The brands that use bland language that obscures or attempts to aggrandize what they do (the sort of language fried up in expensive “strategy wok” sessions at marble and glass temples in Mayfair are toast in my view. Be authentic, be clear. Or be laughed at, or worse, ignored.
“You don’t sell drills, you sell holes.”
Talking about the benefits – what the BBC describe as the “what’s in it for Mrs Miggins question” – is a far better way of getting people interested.
“No company has secrets anymore.”
We are all global correspondents. Vast numbers of us have smartphones with cameras and facebook and twitter accounts. Some broadcasters and news organisations are cancelling their subscriptions to wires services because Twitter is the wire service above all others. Occasionally Reuters will tweet some “Breaking News” hours after we hear about it on Twitter. Look at apps like UKSnow. They track the real-time weather reports of thousands of Twitter users, aggregate them into a map, and make weather forecasters look archaic. Your employees may be loyal, but social media turns brands inside out. All of us are on the front line. When I worked at Dixons many moons ago, we started the difficult process of moving the brand off the High Street and online. The move was going to affect a lot of people and we had to go through a process of briefing people potentially affected ahead of the announcement to the world. Of course, that was the plan, but the news leaked and we were forced to bring forward all of our timings and basically do things faster. These days it’s faster than ever.
“Six degrees of separation is history. There are no degrees of separation.”
The theory was that we were connected to everyone in the world via six relationships. The woman knows the horse who knows the cow who knows the mouse who knows the spider who knows the fly – that type of thing. It’s not like that now. Women and insects are friends via social media. The game ‘Six degrees of Kevin Bacon” died when people worked out that Kevin has acted with everyone now. Social media makes the same thing true. The ramifications for brands are huge. You need to be as close to as many people as possible or you’re not going to be part of the club. See above for the way to do that.
“Everyone is famous for 15 minutes.”
Celebrity is commoditized now, the same way that prawns, cashmere and wasabi beef are. There’s a lot to compete with and there’s a lot to be done to maintain that celebrity. Your brand needs to think like a modern celebrity.
“I’m not an ACORN category, I’m a human being.”
Authenticity is the name of the game. Forget those clunky categorisations touted by business schools and consultancies. Everyone craves authenticity and everyone like to feel part of tribes. Judging someone on how far they live from an Asda or a Waitrose and whether they buy from Boden, John Lewis or Liberty is just nonsense. Harry Wallop’s book, Consumed, goes a long way with his redefining of Britain’s class structure as tribes based on their consumption habits, but there’s more to it. We’re all bespoke. It’s a strategic marketing planner’s nightmare, which is why the whole idea of a strategic marketing plan is so fatally flawed. What brands need to do is define the very broad rules of communication and let the personalities of the people who work for those brands flourish. A brand’s relationships with its customers are micro, not macro.
“We don’t do what we’re told anymore. We do listen to advice.”
Being told by advertisers to buy something is unlikely to yield the outcomes that advertising agencies suggest. Being left with a feeling that I understand this business that’s communicating to me in new and engaging ways will. Being told by friends and family that something is great will make you believe in it and probably want it.
“The history of awards for advertising and marketing have largely been about encouraging the slightly less futile.”
We get sent the books that feature the most creative ideas in the advertising, marketing and PR industries. Some of this work is very good. Most of it is terrible. Most of it places a massive tick in the box next to process. The trouble is that the tail of the tick obscures the word “outcome”.
“The average consumer uses 7.4 methods of digital communication. Our homes are in effect multi-channel communications centers – arguably more sophisticated than those of the businesses that serve us. This underlines our need for dialogue.”
For the first time in history, the average punter is more technically nimble than most of the businesses he or she buys from. Well researched, adept and comfortable with letting others know what we think, we’re hungry for opinion and edge. We’re dismissive of corporate blarney and obfuscation. What we want is clear and open exchange of ideas – and we want to be told something interesting that puts our lives and our choices into context. We want something that decorates our choices so that we don’t experience that burdensome sense of emptiness that for so long has taken the edge off our purchasing choices.