Opinion: Brand value can take many forms, but interruptive storytelling is not one of them
By now, a lot of us will have shipped the first remote projects of our careers. Many consumers will have bought groceries online for the first time (Whole Foods reports 50-fold increase since lockdown started), attended or hosted their first Zoom party and helped their kids adapt to online education. There is a lot of change in the air and it isn’t just that we’re spending more time with our screens.
Slowly, then all at once
As marketers, we take note when consumer behaviors change. The risk now is that we understate the degree of change. Shifts in product preference, adoption and behavior that would ordinarily have taken a decade to evolve are now happening in the space of a few news cycles and each one points to increasing consumer comfort with, and preference for, digital tools, media and commerce.
For agencies, the risks and opportunities associated with this moment are staggering. Winning it requires us to fully embrace all things digital as the most important driver of creative and strategic decision-making. It requires that we finally break from the traditional baggage we’re carrying.
That won’t be easy. While we were lamenting the death of creativity at the altar of data and targeting, clients were buying up the latter because it scales and it works. And while we were spending our time on scripts for thirties and stunts for Cannes cases, retailers were moving inventory with investments in CRM and SEO.
As an industry, we need to point our talent at channels our customers want to spend time with. We need to revisit some first principles of the medium and put digital creativity in the spotlight where it belongs by focusing on the things digital is good at.
Digital lets us open the aperture
What business are we in? Back in 2009, Alex Bogusky wrote in Baked In that, "The deliverable isn’t product or marketing. The deliverable is both.” If there was ever a statement that neatly summed up what it takes to win in a digital-first world, it was this.
Whether we’re shopping for a bank or a burrito, we’re more likely to make choice based on the elegance of the accompanying app and loyalty experience than a traditional brand communication. We love getting a cleverly worded text letting us know that a sweater will arrive tomorrow, and a follow-up email asking how it fit.
Are those things the product? The marketing? Digital has bled the lines. Today, categories with neat borders between the two barely exist outside of consumer packaged goods, and even these are tenuous. (Thanks, subscription d-to-c brands!). Success in this environment means embracing the multiplicity of channels, leaning into what makes each unique, orchestrating them and breaking down whatever silo walls are left in your thinking about who creates which ones. In digital, the deliverable is both.
Digital rewards value
Unlike traditional channels, digital channels are built on a value exchange. Make something useful, beautiful or entertaining and your audience will happily wile away an afternoon with it, sharing information about their intentions and preferences along the way before passing the content to others. But, provide a generic, repetitive message, and your audience will skip, block or ignore it.
Winning today requires fully embracing this flipped power dynamic. We’re still spending too much energy crafting a message and distributing it, trying to force someone to pay attention. Instead, we should be obsessing about value creation for our audiences, developing rich, deep experiences they choose to spend time with.
For example, in the auto category, car configurators routinely post half-hour session times as prospective buyers spend their afternoons tinkering with trim, color and performance options, fantasizing about future purchases. Meanwhile, Lego's construction-focused YouTube channel has 9 million subscribers without a brand story in sight.
For brands, the ceiling on engagement is limited only by the ability to imagine new value for the audience. With a toolkit running from personalization to interactivity to easy distribution to enablement, consumer value can take a lot of forms. Interruptive storytelling simply isn’t one of them.
Digital solves problems
Digital work should begin with a question: What problem are we solving? The inherent assumption is that, unlike any other medium, digital empowers our audience to take action. The best case scenario for a brand isn’t a breakthrough communication or re-appraisal, it’s a concrete customer action.
This is a design question. It’s the starting point of going from an existing condition to a preferred one. More often as not, answering it will lead to something like a service or tool. A content series or an experience. Something other than a story told on behalf of a brand.
Culturally, much of our industry struggles with that notion. We have a hard time recognizing things that don’t arrive in the form of marketing communications. We shy away from building things because of the inherent complexities of making, launching and maintaining them. But to reach the potential of the digital medium, we have to add more product-design muscle and recognize that conceding these ideas to others will leave us with an ever-shrinking relevance to our clients.
This moment will pass but the changes it brings to our lives will be lasting. The agencies that will thrive and be resilient will be the ones who move beyond the traditions in their thinking and fully embrace the incredible opportunity digital affords.