Most of the marketing world, most of the time, is maniacally obsessed with what’s hot and what’s not.
Seismic shifts on the cultural landscape are the currency of our business, because every marketer wants to be fluent in the forces driving the news cycle. Infatuated with influencers, titillated by trends and seasick from surfing the tides of social media, CMOs and their agencies are guzzling an endless torrent of culture reports in a mad attempt to keep their brands relevant.
This is the job, and it isn’t easy. A brand out of sync with the shared language of our time might fall off the cultural landscape like a ship sailing off the edge of the map—still in existence but lost to sight and soon forgotten.
That’s the theory, anyway. But it might also be bullshit.
Let us begin by acknowledging the truth of today’s media, and give credence to the social currency theory of marketing before we set it on fire. No brand can succeed today without being topical and timely, because the way we consume media has fundamentally changed. Once captive audiences are now free-range consumers, watching whatever they want, whenever they want, often on platforms that make interruptive ads skippable, optional or all but impossible.
That’s why product placement has become a behemoth and why branded entertainment—real, plot-driven narratives built by brands, not studios—is the promised land only a few have glimpsed but everyone wants to see in all its glory.
No one can outspend everything-on-demand, so your share of category spending is meaningless unless you show up in the right context, at the right time and make your brand part of the conversation.
All that is true—inarguable, really—and it favors the fickle and the fiery. Get hot or your business runs cold. Stay trendy or you’ll get disrupted or disregarded. So “the hottest brand” is definitely a mark you want if you plan on leading the herd.
But what about bedrock brands?
Brands that are not only timely but timeless. Brands built on human insights that are so elemental they can last a hundred years or more. Brands that become the bedrock of the cultural landscape because they are so universal in their appeal.
There’s something incredibly appealing about brands that do what they say they’re going to do, without presuming to know my other interests, my musical tastes or my politics. Products that perform, service that delivers. No drama, no unwanted interruptions and no stalking me online.
And most of all, some self-awareness about how the brand fits into my life, without the hubris common to brands ever since the pandemic turned marketers into sanctimonious saviors.
Ten years ago we might have pointed to Coca-Cola, IBM or Nike as bedrocks. The happiness of bringing people together, a shared vision for a better future and an undying passion for sport. Three nearly universal themes, with rich DNA as the basis for long-term brand platforms.
If you study the history of these brands, you discover a range of campaigns that always come back to a central theme. The surface of the brand might ebb and flow with culture, but the emotional undercurrent is always there, pulling you toward its center.
Today, however, Coke has a product problem, IBM has a business problem and Nike has a manufacturing problem (at least in the unresolved issues around sourcing that remain a nagging problem for so many apparel brands).
The long view has been obscured by opportunism. Pandemic pandemonium accelerated short-term thinking and put even more pressure on the bottom line—always the enemy of brand building. Quick wins, tactical briefs and procurement-led constriction of agency fees has put any meaningful discussions about brand equity on the back burner.
Today’s conversations about brands are nothing more than bollocks boxes filled with prayers for short-term relevance. When marketers add purpose onto a brand house, nine times out of 10 it has something to do with causes trending now, not an enduring mission to make something better for all time.
This is systemic myopia, because 10 years from now, people will still want things to be easy, happy, refreshing, full of discovery, optimism and magic.
Go deeper and push higher. Don’t be afraid of something category-generic, or human-centric, because if you get it right, you just might end up owning the category. That’s what iconic brands have done time and time again.
Think in terms of storytelling (not marketing by people who just talk about storytelling)—the real kind you see in blockbuster movies, books and TV series. A hero’s journey, a clear protagonist, characters to whom you relate, challenges faced and problems resolved. Those ingredients work as well in 30-second or even six-second commercials as they do in 90-minute films, as well in a banner as a book, as long as you don’t lose sight of the overall narrative. Those timeless themes can be excavated from classic brands, and you can spot them in the DNA of the winning brands launched in the last few years.
That’s the real job, then. Timely and timeless, a balancing act between reliability and relevance. Doing whatever it takes to build a brand that’s a familiar and dependable friend—someone you feel you’ve known all your life—who always has something new to offer and timely to share.
That may not be the hottest thing out there, but it sounds pretty cool to me.