For CMOs, 2011 Will Be About Explaining Why, Not How

Think Past the Distractions of Vague Hopes and Useless Noise and Sell Brands That Matter

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Jonathan Salem Baskin
Jonathan Salem Baskin
OK, the new year has barely begun and most of us are still basking in the glow of that big uptick in holiday sales. You probably also got your fill of 2011 predictions before New Year's, most of which were simply restatements of the old year's news only with the verb tenses changed and some biases and hopes thrown in as "trends."

So I'm going to channel Scrooge and Nostradamus and suggest to you three things:

Ignore the holiday results. Good or bad, they're far more the result of the past year or two than they are directionally relevant to this year or next. The challenge for your brand has always been to find ways to sell under any market conditions, so you're kind of left with the same work whether things get better or worse, aren't you?

Tune out the noise. How reliably true is your understanding of the factors that influenced your 2010 sales? A year of insane news also gave us great ads, engaging social campaigns, and a host of other things that all but guarantee that your ROI calculations (and trend analyses) are noisy. It won't be easy to fix them.

Ask a different question. If you follow my first two suggestions, I think you'll realize that the holidays and even the past few years overall have focused on the "how" of communicating brands and not the "why." This will be 2011's biggest marketing challenge. You need to find a reason for your brand to exist.

I know, the Conventional Wisdom tells you to do the exact opposite, and it'll do so again this year: You need to out-communicate your competition by finding more ways to get people to click, stare or otherwise "engage" with your "content," then leave it to the miracles of technology and conversation to power your brand. 2011 will be filled with more "new rules" and "how-to" lists, so now's the time -- before the year really gets started -- to pause and ask that different question. Consider this argument:

Brands and mass media are inexorably connected. Brands -- the premise that ideas could be grafted onto (or over) businesses -- came into existence hand-in-hand with the mass-media tools of the 20th century that created them. Brands haven't survived multiple iterations of technology and cultural change; they were born in a particular moment in history, and that moment ended over a decade ago.

Many brands are dead, only they don't know it yet. They died when the mass media that delivered them fractured into endless outlets and communication became two-way, thereby making the ideas that differentiated one brand from the next harder to believe and nearly impossible to sustain. The problems that plague them aren't just communications strategy but matters of substance.

Conversation can't bring them back. You need to stand up for the fact that brands were always in "conversations" with consumers; now we scoff at the substance of these dialogues, but they 1. told people things that had meaning, relevance, and prompted sales, and 2. thereby built most of the big names we can cite today. So talking isn't a big new idea; rather, we've simply redefined its online purpose to be entertaining, engaging and to sell nothing.

Old media still drive the bus. Enough with the blather that CMOs are scared of new media; old media works, whether as the news context that drove awareness of Ford so its social-media entertainment got traction, or paid placements, as in the case of those hilarious commercials (and in-store price promos) that launched Old Spice's viral video experiment.

Doing is the new thinking. The reason old media work has everything to do with saying what you mean, and backing it up with tangibly real behaviors. These are the new currencies of successful and sustainable brands. What differentiates yours won't be the invention of your fellow marketers but rather the result of what your business does differently than others.

This question raises different issues, doesn't it? Not many people are telling you to ask it, I'm sure, because it's a helluva lot harder to answer than the incessant dares to spend more money on social, or suggestions that your life might be easier simply because of an improving economy. It encapsulates a challenge that is as tough as it is blunt: Nobody needs your brand because it is a cool or engaging idea. Nobody wakes up with any need or desire to spend more of their life with your marketing. Nobody needs your brand because you give money to charity, generate an incessant stream of online content, or because you've made up some special sauce factor that differentiates your product or service benefits from others through measurements such as an enhanced experience or a pervasive Twitter presence.

Brands are different only if they're really different, and this year would be the perfect opportunity to come up with the substantive reasons why consumers need yours vs. how you're going to use neat new ways to tell them the same old things.

This is the challenge for 2011: thinking past the distractions of vague hopes and useless noise and understanding the products, services, activities and processes that distinguish your brand from all others; identifying why any of it matters; and then debating the "what" that you're contemplating shifting to social-media platforms before you do the shifting. Dare to challenge yourself and your team to face the truly existential conundrum that last year's most entertaining campaigns can't fix, no matter how well you copy them.

CMOs need to lead this charge about "why" and not "how," or risk having to answer even more difficult questions this time next year about "why not?"

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, author and speaker. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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