Advertising remains a hugely important element of marketing, but brands need to engage in a personal dialogue with target consumers if they are to thrive, says Sue Farr
On a recent visit to a client in Glasgow, I stumbled across an excellent live brand event that brought together two products in a hilarious manner. The “Noodle in a Haystack” roadshow is busily promoting the new Pot Noodle variant – Southern-Fried Chicken flavour – by tying up with the release of the Dukes of Hazzard film. The “Southern” connections of the film and the product had an obvious synergy that was brought to life in an irreverent and engaging way (by literally inviting people to dive into bales of hay to retrieve a Pot Noodle and film prizes – and no, I didn’t!) that really delivered on the excitement of the launches of the two properties.
In a market where commoditisation is commonplace and where distinctive brands are difficult to create and expensive to maintain, any company worth its salt is understandably trying to wring every penny from its hard-earned brand equity. No longer satisfied with a beautifully crafted 30-second television commercial, savvy marketing directors are looking to awaken their brands through carefully integrated programmes of activity designed to bring brands to life and thereby to reach further into the daily lives of customers – my company, Chime Communications, calls this “brand activation”. Brand activation is not theory; it is a practical and logical form of integration that enables clients and agencies to focus on delivering activities, rooted in the fabric of the brand, that engage with customers. After all, there would be no point in Apple Computer proclaiming that it is able to “Think Different” if in fact it communicates with its customers in a very ordinary and conventional way.
Successful brands can no longer afford to be the delicate hothouse flowers that they once were, germinated in a well-ventilated ad agency and allowed to bloom only on a couple of commercial TV channels. Today’s brands have to be bred to be hardier, to be capable of standing up to close scrutiny by consumers on their own terms. As media has proliferated, products have become more plentiful, competition for time and consumers’ cash has grown more fierce, so the need for brands to come out of their rarefied environments, to seek out customers face to face and truly engage with them, has increased. Marketing directors are having to navigate this uncharted territory, their brands no longer cosseted by the scripted delivery and production of an advertisement. They have to survive – and, they are finding, usually thrive – by immersing themselves with consumers more directly.
For instance, at the recent East of England show, I was confronted by a huge Norwich Union bus. The juxtaposition of rural lifestyle and urban financial might highlights the growing tendency of companies to seek out and talk to their target markets in a much more personal and engaging way. NU’s objective, I assume, was to deliver unbiased financial information to people thinking about planning for their future – an activity ideally suited to the age groups that the show attracts. There was no hard sell, just impartial information and a welcome cup of tea. The whole exercise was about engaging with consumers.
Brand activation can take many forms, from sponsorship through experiential sampling to major communications programmes. And importantly, consumers are the winners – enjoying added value rarely delivered through an ad alone.
That is not to say that TV advertising is losing its importance, more that there is an increasing need for multi-dimensional campaigns in order to bring brands to life. There are companies – Selfridges, for instance – that barely advertise but make their environment the best expression of their brand. However, in the end, the scale of the opportunity would seem to lie in the industry’s ability to evaluate integrated activity effectively. The joy of brand activation programmes is that the range of activities that can be developed enables the creation of a balanced scorecard of criteria, from consumer research to highly tangible promotional measures, that can be used to measure success.
Brand activation is logical and inevitable. The era of telling consumers what to think is long gone: consumers now make their own minds up by experiencing the brand in any number of mutually conducive settings. And long may that continue, as we will all, marketers and consumers alike, benefit.v