Bursting the marketing bubble

Covid 19 and Greenhouse Gas Greta. Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. Digital disruption in general and the next unseen global shockwave. The world around us is changing faster and faster. And it’s mesmerising. All of us in marketing talk so much about our beloved brands that we can begin to believe the content and hype we have created. That we’ve got everything just right. But not any more. 

All (serious) brands are rethinking their content strategies. Some are refreshing their propositions with subtle tweaks while others are making more radical changes. If there is a theme, it is that brands are trying to be more authentic and, ultimately, to show they have a positive role to play in our day-to-day lives. 

For many, perhaps surprisingly, the process is rewarding and enjoyable. It’s a chance to be creative and bring new insights to marketing plans and all that data. It’s such a disrupted environment, however, that many may also be left – for a while at least – with more questions than answers. 

Here are just a few questions that may spring to mind:

What’s true?

Just because you have always operated successively in a well-defined way doesn’t mean you should just keep going. The truth can be an illusion that has become part of a company’s group-think. You know the story – everyone in the screening room watches the latest campaign launch and sits back with a deep sense of satisfaction for a job well done. The film has hit the brand nail square on the head. Again. Perfect.

But perhaps not. As Mark Ritson, the UK marketing consultant who worked for luxury firm LVMH, once discovered. He was sitting in a cinema basking in the glory of an “amazing” pre-film Louis Vuitton ad called ‘Journeys’ when the cinema erupted. “Bullshit,” shouted one filmgoer when the brand name appeared. “Fucking nonsense,” yelled another. 

The sumptuous production, the audience felt,  had nothing to do with bags. Especially posh ones. “I had expected shock, awe and perhaps a ripple of applause,” Ritson recalled in Marketing Week. “Instead everyone in that theatre – except me – hated it. I began to realise that I had, once again, forgotten the oldest rule of marketing: you are not the consumer.”

So don’t worry if it ain’t broke. There may be nothing to fix at all. But questioning your brand’s accepted truths is a good way to find out.

Where are we?

Okay, so now it’s time to take stock. What is the state of the brand today, and what is the customer experience of the brand? These are huge questions that need to be broken down.

What’s the story?

What, exactly, is your story? Who are you? What do you do and what do you stand for? Who is the customer? How does what you do benefit consumers? And society? How can you tell your story in a way that is both authentic, relevant and compelling? Take time to create the message you want to send. There’s no need to be radical. Subtle changes add up over time to create a more effective and honest story.

In today’s world, for example, increased sustainability hits home. Patagonia once asked its customer to repair rather than buy its beautifully made products. The brand’s army of fans grew and grew, both in number and loyalty! The message? We’d prefer you make our jackets last longer than send them to landfill and buy brand new ones that would bolster our profits. The strategy worked because the brand means it. Greenwashing, as many have tried, doesn’t wash much anymore. 

Do the words help tell the story?

Words matter. Forget SEO at this point. Think deeply about the right words. Formal or informal? Serious or humorous? Colloquial or corporate? Long or short? Chatty or speechy? Soft sell/hard sell? In reality it’s never an either or answer. What will help make your brand unique will not be black or white but the nuanced shades of grey. You want the brand to sound like a human rather than a massive committed and hence robotic organization. A well considered set of guidelines will help create the right tone of voice…

Is the tone of voice on point?

In many ways it’s not what a brand does that makes it a brand but who does it. So your tone of voice should sum up your brand’s personality as well as its core values. It also needs to be recognisable and, ideally, unique. A convincing tone of voice that is understood by everyone will spread naturally through all relevant corporate literature. Compelling content that is consistent can lead to an increase in loyalty. If the brand knows exactly what is about, then so will the customer.

Beware sudden changes of direction. Or moments of what feel like inspiration. Burger King suffered one of these brainstorms when it suddenly positioned itself as the caring burger flippers with an eye on the mental health of the US. “With the pervasive nature of social media, there is so much pressure to appear happy and perfect,” read a press release for the #FeelYourWay campaign. “With Real Meals, the Burger King brand celebrates being yourself and feeling however you want to feel.”

Most burger fans simply thought Burger King was trying to put one over on the purveyors of Happy Meals. And then Twitter got stuck in.

Who you gonna call?

CEOs and executives can drive change, but then so can every employee. Breaking out of your bubble and getting opinions from those who have nothing to do with your company can offer a valuable new perspective. Many moons ago, when I worked at GQ, the editor, Michael VerMeulen, ensured everyone stopped typing at 5pm sharp on a Friday and shared (quite) a few drinks. Freelancers were invited, too, and everyone was encouraged to bring friends. The idea was simple – expand the number of relevant people – anyone from other journalists to comedians – who could come up with ideas for the magazine. It was great fun and it worked.

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