In This Digital Age, a Big Ad Budget Alone Won't Cut It

Viewpoint: Win Over Better-Informed Consumers With Product Excellence, Innovation and Accessibility

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Ajaz Ahmed
Ajaz Ahmed
Economic theory holds that when customers are rational and know all things about all products at all times, they will always make the best decisions regarding purchase. It sounds obvious, but in our age of convergence this poses a real challenge for brands that market in the old, Don Draper style: by creating advertising messages that aim to stoke unconscious desires in the consumer's psyche rather than developing better products, service, value and experience.

Indeed, the stealth, speed and agility offered by today's digital technologies could well be creating the conditions for what economists call the perfectly competitive market across many industries. This sets the stage for an ideal environment for consumers, with free-flowing information about products and prices resulting in the best outcome for the buyer. But it also means that loyalty to brands is transient, as search engines, sophisticated price-aggregating services, unbiased sources and other online facilities that provide instantaneously updated data enable the relentlessly innovative and more-accessible organizations to rise to the top while others languish beneath.

Call it the brand paradox. On the one hand, the convergence of media and technology makes a strong brand essential to any business. Companies without one will simply be lost amid the torrents and gigabytes surging across the world's networks. On the other hand, the on-demand reality pulls apart the traditional brand building blocks, so it's time to do some reinventing.

As advertising evolves, it must provide real answers to real questions, not canned information; it must offer interactions that satisfy real needs, not blanket persuasions; it must create communities that actually speak to one another, that are not just content with aspirations. And these processes do not necessarily, or ideally, all take place together.

Transformation, innovation and constant reinvention
Work that provides information about a product's features and benefits has to be separated from activity that attempts to satisfy consumer aspirations. The way to do this is by building a community around the brand so that the like-minded join. Both further distinguish themselves from ideas that create a direct, more intelligent, proactive relationship between buyers and sellers, and from storytelling that takes a multimedia approach to enhancing a brand's image.

Marketers also have to start asking the questions that should remain at the top of their agendas throughout the transformation: What new ideas and innovation will enable us to cut through the clutter and get people talking and keen to share? And what new capabilities and services will enhance the value of our branded product to our customers?

It will also require organizations to define their brand values more clearly and instill them throughout all customer interactions -- since everyone and "everything" that relates to a customer is effectively part of the brand, as we now know.

In the current era of information overload -- where attention-deficit disorder combined with time starvation has rapidly become the norm, where people have access to significantly more content than they can possibly assimilate -- how else is it possible that people are able to filter through the masses of data to make the best decisions? Unless consumers are willing to share a brand's ideas and its constituent parts, then the chances of being heard through all the noise are remote.

The arrival of 'Channel Me'
Indeed, the first act in the process has already started. This is why multi-taskers are, perhaps subconsciously, unbundling conventional advertising messages from their lives, not only through their active use of content-on-demand services and DVRs but also by creating all-embracing, personalized feeds or interactive channels that include only the family, friends, associates, organizations, information and brands they choose to engage with. Consumers are increasingly the mouthpiece and amplification for brands that provide some kind of social currency or kudos. This constantly changing "Channel Me" provides a sense of control and a convenient escape from the shouting, jingle chanting and brand-name blasting that old-school advertisers use to imprint information on the brain of a couch potato wondering where his next snack will come from.

Ajaz Ahmed is chairman of AKQA.
It's not really surprising that conventional advertising messages should fail to translate in this world. Brands were created for producers to enable factory builders and assembly-line inventors to tout the virtues of their newly mass-produced wares to the vast markets they hoped and prayed were waiting for them. The web, by contrast, was created for consumers, to provide a way of picking through and making individual sense of masses of information and goods. Not only does this imply a change of perspective, it also, by definition, necessitates a complete change in the way in which advertising carries out its various functions.

Consider three moments from January 2009. When, on Jan. 20, Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th president of the U.S. in front of the largest crowd America had brought together on any previous occasion, the majority of people who were not in Washington to experience the historic celebration saw it unfold by turning to the web and their mobile devices. Never before had internet traffic hit the record peak it did at the start of President Obama's speech, as millions around the world watched, read, participated in and shared the moment.

The following day, Peter Oppenheimer, Apple's chief financial officer, announced the company's most recent results at its quarterly earnings call. Despite what is now known as the most challenging economy in several decades, Mr. Oppenheimer had good news. Apple reported its best revenue and profit in the company's extraordinary 33-year history. In discussing the results, Mr. Oppenheimer said to an attentive audience of analysts and investment bankers: "We entered the holiday season with our best product lineup ever, and our customers responded."

Also in January, metrics firm Compete reported Facebook had grown its number of unique users in the U.S. an astonishing 85% in 2008. Only a matter of weeks after, Facebook's lead over its closest rival had grown a further 15%. Internationally, Facebook also has unequaled success. By the time its fifth-birthday celebrations were in full swing Feb. 5, Facebook had already become the largest social network -- an operating system for many people's lives -- with more than 150 million active users worldwide.

Undeniably, President Obama, Apple and Facebook embody the rising power of today's curious, informed, knowledgeable consumer. How is it that these brands are able to plow the same field as their competition but reap the rewards, taking up positions close rivals must have hoped would be their own? Winners in today's massively competitive, and arguably more meritocratic, marketplace are not differentiated by the sizes of their advertising budgets. Differentiation comes from a relentless focus on product excellence, simplicity and accessibility, combined with a hunger for improvement.

Is the dark cloud of dominance without innovation now finally behind us? Is the era when an inferior company could outspend a superior and often smaller rival to gain a distribution or market-share advantage now over, with the growing majority of people empowered, adaptable and able to make intelligent, informed choices without needing to be interrupted, surrounded and even insulted by countless commercial messages? If it isn't now, it soon will be.

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