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Brand Suicide

August 31, 2010

Flickr.com: Balakov

The emotional meltdown of brands in the 21st century
(and how we can help)

I get a call at 00h40. It is late, I’m asleep, or was. I reach for the phone.  “Mr Abel, we need your help sir – I think we have a jumper”.  I scramble out of bed, pull on my tracksuit and trainers, pop a mint in my mouth and get into my car. 10 minutes later, I’m on the cold, windy rooftop of the cities’ highest building. My balding pate is cold and I put on a beanie. And there she stands, teetering at the edge. She sees me and I beckon. “I can help you” I shout. She trembles and shakes her head “I can’t take it anymore” she mumbles. “Everyone used to want me, I was in everyone’s home, I had a distinct personality and people knew who I was. I was relevant”. And with that she gives me a slow mournful look, turns and jumps. I don’t even hear the scream. It is silent. The very worst type.

That, ladies and gentleman, is where many once loved and highly valued and valuable brands can soon find themselves. Let’s understand why.

For decades, many have equated a brand personality and its relationship with a consumer much the way a person chooses a friend. And then naturally, the very things that sustain that friendship.  I agree to a point, and then I don’t. In fact it may be this very belief that is actually getting brands into a whole lot of trouble in the “web 2.0 (3.0) world”. Marketing fundamentalists will tell you, that a brand has to stand for something (not many things). It must be clear and distinctive. It should relevant and compelling. That message and/or brand personality should be communicated to an appropriate audience in a consistent and single-minded way, over a period of time, and that is how you own the high-ground in your category. They are not wrong. But a lot of the behaviours around this are.

New age marketers have a slightly different view. They believe you need, “like a friend”, to have a conversation with consumers. To ask them what they want. To engage. If this means, to talk to consumers in a useful, entertaining and relevant way, so as to heighten your propensity to conclude a sale, then I agree. If it means that the sale or desired consumer reaction addresses the business strategy of the organization and addresses its challenges, I agree. If it means, running a friendship club on Facebook, Twitter and whatever other new (old) fangled thing will pop up – and many will – to ask consumers what they want, where we should go as a brand, how they can be more useful etc etc, as seems to be order of the modern marketing day, then you are heading for real trouble. And so many brands, and marketers, through either sheer hubris, naivety or both, are heading, lemming-like, up this particular hill.

Most sane thinkers and true observers of human nature will tell you that people want to know what you stand for in life, what your values are, what drives you and what you’ll do, versus standing there, like a trembling blank canvas asking “but who do you want me to be ? How can I be more useful ?”.  Then, to layer some brand insult over injury, to take some hard earned marketing money and pay to sit behind one way glass, watching some soon to be inebriated, cash-strapped strangers, tell us where we should take the brand. As Henry Ford once famously said “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse”. Customer brand and communication research, my friends, is more frequently, than not, a rear-view mirror. It is generally not a windscreen. It can, at best, only tell you what is or more than likely, what was. In the hands of a very skilled practitioner, it can be used to corroborate the status quo or highlight some issues. It cannot tell you where to go. And it never will. You see, human nature doesn’t change, and people have never been able to broadly see what could be, versus what is. It is that lonely inventor, maverick or creative mind who plods away, night after night, pondering focussed problems who comes up with the so called “aha” moment. It then needs to be clearly, simply and beautifully packaged before the consumer, who was in fact, leading his life perfectly before its invention, raises from a routine life and says “ mmm, that looks interesting, perhaps I’ll try it’.

What is useful today, is to effectively use tools to listen in on those spontaneous and unguarded web conversations consumers are having about your brand and if relevant, to develop strategies or responses from them.

I’m not sure who those sorry consumers are, outside of the marketing department or advertising agency, who spend their lives, wanting to tell companies where to take their brands and how to enhance their usefulness. It is the job of the marketers to tell consumers. Through playful, fresh, enticing, relevant and focussed communications. But this is not a creative jolly. The communication needs to SOLVE the key issues and challenges that the advertiser is facing. We are not in the entertainment industry, we simply use entertainment  to sell. If your presence on social media, if your purpose of activations or pr or television, is to seek out a friendship or simply “engage”, that is not good enough. One of the greatest luxuries today is time. It is in short supply. People are busy. They seek that which is easily understood, even if complex, that which enhances their lives, is useful, consistent and accessible. This is where we must be. To inform, inspire and lead. Not to ask. Mick Jagger didn’t ask if he should gyrate, pout and stick out his tongue. He did. And he’s still around. Frank Sinatra didn’t run focus groups or ask on his Facebook page “are brown eyes now more fashionable than blue? Should I wear colour contacts ?”.  The marketers that understand how to create demand will survive, versus asking consumers how to do this via  a joke, a fart or a tweet, for they will fall away. Those latter behaviours will lead brands to find themselves, on a cold and lonely night on a rooftop, contemplating how they got there.” The question is, are you nurturing and growing brands, or assisting suicides?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. October 20, 2010 2:22 pm

    Just to add to your blog, I believe South Africa is heading this way. I had a few personal experiences with a chicken brand and asked them to take key learnings from a market like India which has great similarities in respect to South Africa and the answer I got was the chicken brand is not only for Indians; My response was, India is one of the fastest growing economies in the world and a trend setter in many aspects. International brands like KFC, Mcdonalds are investing heavily in these markets and enjoying major growth, than why not.

    Advertising is about growing your brands market share and not only the Loeries awards.

    Your blogs are very insightful!

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