Consumers to Brands: Make Yourselves Useful

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Pat fallon said in these pages recently that the future of advertising was about becoming an expert on how media is consumed. If that's true at all -- and most in the industry would agree with him -- it's only part of the story.

The present and future of advertising is becoming an expert on your consumers, and, by extension, creating things that mean something to them. Your future as a marketer (or someone who works with one) may be answering, honestly, one question: What good am I?

As Benjamin Palmer puts it: "The big change that needs to happen is that we need, as an industry, to be innovators in making ourselves useful." Palmer is co-founder and president of interactive hybrid agency/production company/think tank The Barbarian Group. Palmer has a refreshingly easygoing and unfiltered manner but speaks with the authority of a veteran of numerous interactive blockbusters -- think Subservient Chicken, Comcastic, Milwaukee's Best, and many other big, engaging interactive deals. And when he says things like, "Why can't we all, like, just do awesome work, all the time?" you wonder why everyone else has to make things so damn complicated.

"I believe the next stage of brand advertising is going to be in the realm of 'branded utility,"' says Palmer. (He co-credits Anomaly partner Johnny Vulcan with coining the phrase.)

In a column in the current issue of Creativity, R/GA CEO-Chief Creative Officer Bob Greenberg speaks of his own personal epiphany at Cannes, when he became certain that brand culture would move away from the metaphorical (as embodied in the TV spot and its interactive extensions) and toward the useful. It's no coincidence that it's the interactive types and ad people with interactive chops who are touting this application-based marketing opportunity; it requires technical as well as creative prowess. "You have to understand applications and media; you have to have a tech capability in order to even think up some of these concepts," says Greenberg, who also notes that projects of this nature have sprung from the planning function in his shop.

Examples are wide-ranging, but Greenberg points to the recent Nike Plus project -- the Apple partnership that integrates an iPod with a chip in a Nike trainer to create a music-based performance enhancer. R/GA created the online component of the Plus project, which allows users to create and share personalized running data. Palmer points to viaMichelin.com, the tire company's widely used European mapping service: "They have been publishing road maps and guides for a long time, and caught on early to online mapping. This is a branded utility, and a damn good one at that."

Creating something that people need, not aping existing applications because you can, is key, says Palmer.

"For the same budget and energy as we expend on current forms of advertising, we could be making something more tangible, useful and reusable that plays a more integral part in the consumer's life. This is 'interactive,' which is not synonymous with 'online,' by the way."

Such a thing demonstrates that brands are paying attention and responding to what people actually want, Palmer says. "[Consumers] are watching us more than we are watching them. We are not in control anymore, but that's OK. If we do this right, we can actually have a good relationship with 'the consumer' for once. How nice would that be?"

Teressa Iezzi is the editor of Creativity magazine and AdCritic.com. E-mail your big ideas to her at tiezzi@crain.com.
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