Reuniting brands with consumers

First contact with the brand doesn’t have to come on the high street in the information age

Traditional advertising models are being usurped by new media offering closer ties with the consumer. Resistance is useless, argues Alan Mitchell, who warns ad agencies that they must face up to a future where they are no longer top dog but just another specialist touting their marketing wares

When they heard that direct marketing agency Rapier Stead & Bowden had won the Cable & Wireless Communications account, advertising agencies involved in the pitch were flabbergasted. If the account had gone to another ad agency it would have been OK, remarked one executive at the time, but … the unspoken ending was “… but they are not One Of Us!”.

The CWC decision is just one of many recent knocks to ad agencies’ confidence, as last week’s cover story underlined. But agencies’ biggest and most intractable challenge is what BMP DDB chief executive Chris Powell calls the battle for the chairman’s ear. Agencies won this fight back in the Fifties and Sixties when “marketing was something new and wonderful” and “agencies led their clients into this new age of thinking”, Powell noted in a recent Financial Times article.

Happily for agencies, the model of branding they taught was driven by mass advertising. If the brand was the cart, advertising was the horse, and the agency was in the driving seat. The problem now is that it’s no longer clear that this particular model of marketing is best for the future. New thinking has begun again. But this time, instead of getting agencies “back to a top table”, as Powell puts it, they are marginalised, relegated to the role of just another specialist.

This new thinking centres on the rise of information age marketing, for want of a better term. The first few elements of this shift – the emergence of individually addressable and interactive communications – are well rehearsed. So far their impact has been limited. Debate has centred on the degree to which new media are better or cheaper at doing the things old media are supposed to do.

But as the new thinking evolves it’s becoming clear that far from getting marketers and consumers closer together, the old model of branding actually puts up barriers between them.

Thus the classic packaged goods model of branding which agencies taught their clients in the Fifties and Sixties hides the company from the consumer behind a screen of stand-alone brands. These brands are works of fiction, with specially invented imagery and personalities that bear little or no relation to the actual personality of the company behind them. They are projected onto a screen – a third-party intermediary called the media – which stands forever between producer and consumer.

Seen from the vantage point created by modern databases and interactivity the limits of this model are obvious. No matter how customer-focused it is, its heavy reliance on media keeps these customers at a distance. After all, we only resort to media as a surrogate for personal contact.

The model is also startlingly two- dimensional, just like the screen images that sell it. First, the model is focused on an item – not a service – ignoring the fact that service brands are far more complex and account for a growing proportion of consumer spending. Second, everything about this model – functional attributes, physical appearance, packaging and accompanying imagery – is prepackaged, presented to the consumer as a fait accompli. Far from creating a range of possibilities, the brand reduces choice to a binary decision of “take it or leave it”.

From the point of view of the information age marketer, the manager of such a brand is a sad control freak – the two marketers’ outlooks just don’t mix. Internally, modern IT and telecoms are providing organisational machines with the equivalent of a brain, spinal cord and nervous system that increasingly allow them to sense and react to their environment in realtime. Externally, this means their marketing is now less about projecting prepackaged images on to remote screens and more about day-to-day contact with customers, responsiveness and operational flexibility.

Whereas the old model focused on one-at-a-time exchanges of goods for money with anonymous buyers, the new model sees the continued exchange of information between company and named individuals as important as the exchange of money for goods. It is this continual interaction that allows marketers to evolve the brand’s offer. After all, there is no point in dialogue if nothing changes as a result.

Once this begins to happen, the focus of brand trust moves from consistency of product quality to whether or not the organisation “will do right by me”. And brands emerge as manifestations of the organisation’s qualities and ethos rather than creations of marketing campaigns. The focus of marketing therefore shifts from advertising to what data warehousing expert Sean Kelly calls “structural links” with customers, usually centred on some form of database. In turn, marketing moves from being a primarily public process to a private process, as promise creation and delivery increasingly happens through these structural links.

That doesn’t mean that mass media advertising is dead. Far from it, in volume terms it may continue to grow. Brands still need to be famous. Companies increasingly need to promote themselves as “the sort of organisation I would like to do business with”. And the media can be a key structural link in its own right: just look at the rise of DRTV. But what it does mean is that advertising is no longer the natural strategic centre.

No one has perfected the emerging model of branding yet. Business-to-business marketing currently offers the best living examples. But when it comes to mass consumer markets the old horse and cart model still probably delivers the goods faster, cheaper, more safely and reliably than the fledgling information-fuelled motorised version.

Nevertheless, it is likely that the power-brands of tomorrow will be those that get motoring. Agencies could play a key role in this development. But so could logistics boffins, IT specialists, even personnel directors concerned with customer service and brand experience. The battle for the chairman’s ear has hardly begun.

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