In a nutshell, I'd say we're becoming more adept at the kind of marketing that helps consumers discover the real things companies and products do -- as opposed to advertising that just creates awareness or gets brands to "stand" for something.
I don't want to say the latter two things are no longer important, but doesn't it feel like they're becoming a little less important?
There are a lot of ways to characterize the practice of brand-building. It's been referred to as "storytelling," and "the manufacturing of emotion." Gareth Kay, former director of planning for Modernista, gets credit for coining my personal favorite -- "the art of producing fireworks." And when you look at the kind of work that wins the lion's share of awards (think Sony's "Balls" or T-Mobile's "Flashmob"), it's hard to disagree that in the quest for memorability, a lot of the most celebrated advertising is still about creating spectacle.
I'm more and more of the opinion that this should no longer be agencies' core focus if they hope to remain relevant. Partially as a result of the digital age (and partially because consumers just expect more from companies today), I believe that consumers are ready for new kinds of relationships with brands, built more on reality and transparency than on taglines, mascots and fanfare.
And -- just maybe -- the brands that will benefit from these new types of relationships will be the ones that remove the layers of artifice between companies and the things they make. Ultimately, can't a company/product and its brand be one and the same? Are "fireworks" even necessary for some brands?
Think about how the shopping experience for a highly considered purchase like a car has changed. Fifteen years ago, if you were looking for a car, the only sources to get information on a particular model were a dealership (where you could pick up a beautiful glossy brochure) or reviews in enthusiast magazines or Consumer's Reports. Now you also have access to dozens of professional reviewers via the web, not to mention thousands of consumer reviews on YouTube, message boards, blogs and rating sites like Epinions. In this context, how much does a print ad or a TV spot about a car matter? Isn't it possibly a lot more important to be there with the right information when people are ready to start looking?
To do just that, what a lot of smart agencies (and clients) are getting good at is creating the "connective tissue" that allows consumers to get closer to companies, closer to products and closer to the consumers who are talking about those products. That can mean giving them a direct means to connect with someone at the company via a blog, social media or a live event, or providing them with easier, more intuitive pathways to consumer reviews, discussion groups and communities.
I believe that many of the most successful companies of tomorrow will be the ones in which the deeper consumers dig, the better the story gets. Which means that ideally, there should be no disconnect between how a brand is perceived and what a company does.
That's a tall order, no doubt, but isn't that exactly what a lot of successful brands are doing right now?
Method, the cleaning products company, has done some great advertising, but perhaps even more important for the brand, the company believes there is value in telling consumers exactly how its products are made. On its website, you can get the facts on every ingredient that goes into every product, what it does, and what its effect is on personal health and the environment.
Walmart recently created a social media community called Elevenmoms, an online forum for moms to connect and share money saving tips and ideas that also offers budgeting tools. Walmart's commercials tell you to "Save money. Live better." But Elevenmoms goes beyond messaging and shows you how.
Nomis, the European soccer shoe brand, starts with a unique reason for being -- to offer the world a better-fitting shoe. Everything they do then flows from that premise: a video highlighting the fact that the majority of soccer shoes don't fit properly and can cause injury; an eight-step guide to finding the right fit to be distributed at retail; a traveling store that gives away the right shoe so you can take it home and compare it to your current shoe; a website that deepens the fit story and allows you to buy the other shoe; a mobile sales force of ex-players and coaches that takes the Nomis message (and the shoes) to soccer fields all over Europe.
These are great brand-building examples, but not in the typical way. For many companies today, advertising does not define the brand nearly as much as how the company behaves, or what the product actually is (or does.) It's becoming harder and harder to "buy" your way to a great brand via paid media without actually doing or providing something of true value to the consumer.
Despite all this, I don't believe that the days of splashy brand campaigns are going to end anytime soon. Marketers will continue to funnel dollars into efforts to stand out amidst the marketing noise that exists. And there are obviously product categories – candy and beer come to mind -- that are exceptions. When there isn't a whole lot to say about your product, you might justifiably end up with things like Cadbury's Gorilla spot.
But based on RFPs we're seeing this year, awareness building isn't the No. 1 priority with clients right now. Connecting clients more efficiently to their consumers is. And I don't believe that's a trend that's going away anytime soon.