Market's medieval times

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Today's mandate for business is to create a connection between the consumer and brand that is so appealing, so intensely rewarding that consumers decide to forgo the spectacle of what's become our modern-era marketing gauntlet and instead ride off with their brands. Creating these intense consumer connections begins with understanding, and then applying a relatively simple set of principles-respect, authenticity and fun.

But first brand managers need to recognize that, at the dawn of this new, post-modern millennium, they, ironically, are pitched in a battle reminiscent of the Dark Ages. They lead their brands from initial point of contact to ultimate point of purchase through a gamut of competitive brands, poised to assault with a stronger pitch, a better offer, a more compelling benefit.

That's why this marketplace resembles nothing so much as it does a medieval gauntlet. The front end is the moment of proof, where a brand basks in the glory of having entered the consumer's "considered set" of potential purchases. At the back end is the moment of truth, where consumers confer upon the brand the ultimate honor of completing a transaction, perhaps even cementing a relationship. In between, however, the gauntlet is a maze of marketing mayhem.

Tens of millions of dollars invested in brand image-building and awareness-building can be at stake and in danger of being wasted because of a failure to build a strategy to circumvent the gauntlet's perils.

No one really wins in this combat, however. Brands just take turns beating each other senseless and killing each other off. Above all, consumers, the very people each brand wishes to please, eventually become irritated by all the noise even if they were initially entertained by it. They may even start to think they are victims of the gauntlet, as well. And when the brand has lost the pleasure of the consumers-well, sadly, all is lost.

Enter the three principles of respect, authenticity and fun.

* RESPECT: Being respectful, for brands, above all requires finding a place within the context of the way people live their lives. It's not OK to telephone people just because they're home or send them an e-mail because their address is available. The brand message should be brought to consumers when and where they are likely to want and need it.

Years ago, Gatorade enjoyed success with a program known as "Point of Sweat." The idea was to bring the brand to consumers when they were playing sports, mowing the lawn or otherwise in need of the kind of replenishment Gatorade provides. Yes, the program was invasive-but because the tactic served consumers' needs, it got respect.

* AUTHENTICITY: Let the brand's behavior shape people's attitudes. It's widely believed that attitude drives behavior. That belief, in fact, is a guiding principle of advertising. Tell consumers they'll be smarter, hipper or sexier if they buy your brand-and they'll buy your brand. In fact, the truth arguably is just the opposite: Behavior drives attitude.

If the brand enables consumers to smile, feel respected, empowered with information, entertained and comforted, it will bask in a glow of good will. In other words, if the brand's elan-its soul-actively enables the people it seeks to attract to feel better about themselves, they will have a more positive attitude toward the brand. Logically, they will also be more likely to buy it.

* FUN: Fun is not something people would like to have. It is a basic need. So essential is fun to the human condition that we see it as a new rung on Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs pyramid.

Because of fun's fundamental role in human happiness, it should represent more than a simple overlay to the marketing strategy. It should be consistent with the brand's essence, not just a random act of entertainment.

In some cases, the element of fun is built right into the product's design: Apple Computer's iMac computer and the new Chrysler PT Cruiser are examples. In other instances, the "fun" is a marketing overlay, such as American Express Co.'s introduction of its new "blue" credit card via a free concert in New York's Central Park, featuring Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow and the Dixie Chicks.

By creating intense consumer connections premised on respect, authenticity and fun, brands can escape the death spiral otherwise known as the gauntlet. Most important of all, given the gamut of competitive attempts to seduce consumers at every turn, a specific call to action must be fully integrated to virtually every brand experience.

Spending millions of dollars to create image and raise awareness without closing the loop by making the sale is, after all, medieval. Investing in respect, authenticity and fun, by comparison, is all about buying into the future of a brand. M

Mr. Nichols is CEO of WPP Group promotion marketing agency Einson Freeman,

Paramus, N.J.

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