The Revolution Our Industry Needs

Advertising Must Focus Less on Messaging, More on Corporate Behavior

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I recently completed a documentary about the future of advertising called "The Naked Brand." I spoke to CEOs, CMOs, authors and scientists in a year-long journey to understand what lies ahead for our industry. What I learned was shocking. It is time for a revolution -- one that starts with advertising, but will ultimately focus on mighty corporations.

More than half of the world's 100 largest economic entities are corporations. Walmart, for example, has a bigger budget than Norway. With the recent "Citizens United" Supreme Court ruling, corporations have almost unlimited ability to donate funds to influence politicians and government policy.

But the one area where corporations are losing control is advertising. Consumers now have access to the truth at any hour, so they no longer passively listen to, or trust, corporate communications. They don't have to. They listen to each other. In a typical month, consumers exchange more than 30 billion pieces of information on Facebook alone, with billions more on other social channels. In a typical day, millions of pieces of information about brands are exchanged on product-review sites and through word of mouth. According to research conducted by Edelman, trust in corporations is at an all-time low.

Similarly, consumers don't need or believe advertising the way they once did. Studies show that almost 9 out of 10 TV ads are ignored. We may have shifted budgets online, but our digital performance is also unimpressive; we serve 1,000 banner ads before anybody clicks on a single one. That's because we continue to develop the same creative with the same old messages -- shiny, sexy, new, improved. TV ads haven't changed significantly in 50 years and we simply use digital media as an updated form of print and direct mail. The result: around 25% of consumers trust advertising while more than 90% trust peer reviews.

Transparency and connectivity are fueling change that would have been unimaginable not long ago. Consumers don't accept unethical corporate behavior or sub-par products. Brands that want to survive and thrive must respond to this sea change. Sitting idle on a clever campaign and hoping no one exposes the truth on a blog or with a one-star rating is a recipe for failure.

Great modern brands will be built on behavior, not on messages -- on being great, not just looking great. This is what the revolution is about. Those in the advertising industry who recognize that our role is fundamentally changing will lead the revolution. They will understand that while advertising can still build awareness, it has a limited ability to shift perceptions. The revolutionary ad men and women will shift their focus away from messaging and shepherd clients to change their behavior -- to make great products, provide incredible customer service, create frictionless commerce, protect the environment and invest in social responsibility.

This is not going to bring on the death of advertising. That false eulogy has been written too many times. Rather, this is about a creative renaissance. Traditional advertising will remain, but the definition of advertising will be dramatically expanded to focus on every place that a brand touches consumers. Great advertisers will start by forcing brands to have a platform and then use every touch point to provide value to consumers, not just clever messages and jingles.

Some world-class brands have already embraced the revolution. Amazon, Pepsi, Zappos, Google, Chipotle and Virgin America all use traditional advertising, but don't rely on ads to build their brands. Instead, they've created meaningful platforms that consumers believe in. Amazon puts its money into free shipping. Pepsi invests in social responsibility. Zappos in happy employees. Google in user experience. Virgin America in product experience. Chipotle invests in relationships with small organic farms.

These brands stand for something that makes consumers feel empowered. These platforms constitute a revolutionary form of advertising –- create something great and consumers will carry the message for the brand. One of my favorite examples is Patagonia. During the 2011 holiday season, when retailers made the lion's share of their annual revenue, Patagonia launched a campaign that said, "Don't buy this jacket," with a picture of their own product. The company encouraged customers to "repair, reuse and recycle" clothes they already owned, explaining that we need to reduce consumption and its impact on the planet. It is a counterintuitive marketing message that helped create a platform for the brand that says, "We care more about the environment than pure profits." And every time they put a priority on the environment over capitalism, their sales increase. Executives report that these are the best years in the company's history. The brand platform creates an identity, consumer loyalty and rabid evangelists. It pays to be good.

As we embark on this revolution, we need to understand what we're fighting against. The enemy is complacency. We need to revolt against the willingness to do the same thing every day, pushing the environment and our economy one step closer to collapse. We are revolting against an antiquated system that says short-term profits are more important than long-term benefits. We are revolting against a focus on creating clever messages rather than incredible corporations. Most importantly, we are revolting against anyone who says we can't change the world.

Advertising can help change the world. The beacon brands in my documentary prove it. Our industry is filled with some of the brightest and most creative minds on the planet. We need to remove the barriers that force us into traditional thinking. Those who embrace this opportunity will lead the revolution. Those that ignore it will be destined for the same mediocre results we have now.

Jeff Rosenblum is founding partner of Questus, a digitally-led advertising agency with offices in New York and San Francisco.
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