Branded utilities are not actually new

DuncanThat rare ability to deliver content and context matters more than ever in the digital world, says Alastair Duncan.

The first commercial shown on British Television was for Gibbs S R Toothpaste. Viewers on September 22, 1955, saw a tube of toothpaste in a block of ice and a woman called Meg Smith brushingher teeth properly “up and down and around the gums”. A perky voice-over delivered theneat new slogan/ “It’s tingling fresh. It’s fresh as ice. It’s Gibbs SR toothpaste.” It was a training film, no less.

In modern parlance, it was a ‘brand utility’. It literally showed people how to clean their teeth, thus proving itself to be informative and useful, with the added benefit of a cosy tune to remember the brand by. So what’s this got to do with the future of the digital agency?

The internet doesn’t make you smarter
I’m frequently reminded there’s a Don Quixote-style tendency for digital agencies to tilt at the windmills of the television budget. Modern digital gets that television isn’t dead. In fact, it’s changing, learning and adapting, like all media is, on account of evolving consumer trends online. Brands no longer sit behind the seductive gloss of the promise in the 30-second film. We’re familiar with the phrase ‘living the brand’, bandied about in focus groups.

The truth is, brands have to be alive, be understood by and be understanding with the interactive consumer. And when they are sought, they must be found.

Digital agencies know plenty about interactive consumers. They know how to make brands interactive and create participation. But they don’t always have the experience of explaining just why it’s so important for brands to behave in new ways.

Board-level brand owners want to learn how to use the new-media complex as effectively and consistently as the erstwhile TV spots we see squeezed so badly onto YouTube. A more mature mindset and vocabulary of shareholder value and marketing effectiveness are required. It also takes deeper knowledge of what brands stand for and how to make them famous.

As I write this, there is a nostalgia for 1955 in the air. Interest rates are at their lowest point since that year. Back then, the permanently interruptive technology of television proved just as disruptive to the genteel world of bookish advertising copy as broadband is today. A new breed of agency evolved, with the cinema craft and housewife insight turned to make the ‘microfilms’ that put brands on the map.

In a rather more compressed fashion, this is happening again in the interactive world. Experienced skills remain in short supply, and all the traditional agencies have swiftly re-invented themselves with either a digital ghetto or digital go-to guy. The agency construct is shifting again.

Complexity is the new simplicity
We now live firmly in a world of multi-channel integration. Doing this at all, let alone well, takes some doing. Marketers need to understand techniques encompassing a wider range than ever. Affiliate, search, email, display, social media, online PR and mobile are just a few monsters on the charts.

There are intricacies, specific language, nuance, metrics, values and relevancy to each discipline. Adam Smith’s division-of-labour theory holds. Increased specialisation makes it tough to find one person or organisation that can actually understand it all, and also give sound advice that is agenda free.

There is hope in the emerging forms of planning. Today we have to blend consumer insight, campaign strategy, channel mix, user experience, usability, information design and analytics into one.

These new ‘superplanners’ compete with the brand-planning skills set that tends to live in the older creative agencies which simply don’t have to deal with as much complexity. But the shortage of common currency remains the biggest challenge in deciding what brands should do.

Brands don’t grow bigger by being measured
The recent IPA Touchpoints study shows up interesting inefficiencies brought about by the conflict between accountability and effectiveness. Effectiveness should be about doing the right thing. Accountability can be being seen to be apparently doing the right thing.

More than anyone, I admire efforts of bringing accountability to centre stage. It’s not easy. Having developed pretty cool ‘black-box’ measurement for clients, there is always a risk that we start out with the aim of making the important measurable, and end up making only the measurable important.

We shouldn’t fall foul of Macnamara’s fallacy, so called after the US Defense Secretary’s obsession with numerical reference points, (‘enemy body counts’), led to disbelief in information that had no numbers attached (‘the enemy aren’t giving up, Sir’).

More data should help us improve levels of consumer engagement. Clever and digitally savvy individuals can help unpick the evolving landscape in the context of the brand’s actual business situation. We have to read the signs to take the brand to a brighter place. Most of all, brands still need help in capturing the imagination of the consumer. To do this, they require the best people with the best ideas.

NostalgiaThe market for something to believe in is endless
If only consumers knew how good X minutes a month at the discount of Y with Z texts thrown in is, they’d be bound to pop into stores to sign up. The problem is, when consumers don’t feel right about the brand, the deals don’t matter. For example, HD TV is truly disruptive technology. Once you have HD there is no turning back. It makes sense of the big flat screen TV bought last year, however, most people don’t know that, so asking people to take on an HD subscription only works when there is a dramatic emotional connection with Sky HD, as well as a detailed explanation online.

Neuroscience tells us that the emotional side of the brain has a lot more to do with decision making than previously thought. An emotion-led brief leads to highly original creative and far higher levels of engagement and effectiveness. I love being in an interactive world. Don’t you?

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