Mark Ritson: Marketers put the cart before the horse

There are two ways to develop a communication campaign. You can start with your brand strategy and let that guide your choice of communications, or you can start with a communications campaign and retrofit your brand around it.


The first, brand centric approach, is both cost-effective and impactful. A marketer who knows what they are doing starts the communication planning process with no agencies in sight, and no clear ideas about what kind of communication they want to do. Instead, they review their target segments, brand positioning and strategic objectives and then brief their agencies on what they want to achieve for the year ahead. The resulting campaign is then guaranteed to be on brand and on strategy.

And then there is the other, more common, approach. A team of marketers from a brand with a big marketing budget are pitched a big communications vehicle. Either because they have no clear marketing plan or because they are bedazzled by the opportunity, they blow their budget on a campaign usually centred on a massive sponsorship or product placement.

They then turn their attention to the difficult business of making their newly acquired cart pull their horse for the rest of the year. Because when you put communications ahead of the brand specific objectives everything is the wrong way around – and it shows.

To that end, I strongly encourage you to head to your local multiplex to catch Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon. Among the multitude of product placements that dot the film you will encounter by far the most bizarre movie tie-in of this or any other season – Double A paper.

Double A is the “official paper” of Transformers 3. The actual product is featured in a key scene of the movie and Michael Bay, the Transformers director, has also fronted a 30-second TV ad for the paper brand. “This action-filled TV spot elevates the performance and qualities of Double A to an even higher standard,” Bay commented in the official press release.
“Integrating cuts and character from Transformers 3 magnifies the thrill. Working with Double A is such a great pleasure, and I’m extremely satisfied with the outcome.”

Let’s review why this strategy is bonkers using the three eternal measures of any communications campaign – target segment, positioning and objectives.

On the target segment criterion, one might imagine that the Venn diagram showing the audience for Transformers 3 and the decision makers for photocopying paper is somewhat disconnected. It also fails the test of brand positioning – Double A is meant to be a brand focused on no jams and no stress, exactly the opposite of what Transformers 3 promises to deliver to audiences. And in terms of objective, it is unclear what behavioural impact a children’s action movie is likely to have on the office supplies decision making process.

My other current favourite example of communications madness comes from that champion of marketing strategy, British Airways. By now you will no doubt have seen the fascinating campaign BA is running to publicise its sponsorship of the London 2012 Olympics. Featuring Richard E Grant, Heston Blumenthal and Tracey Emin, the print and online campaign introduces a contest to identify aspiring chefs, scriptwriters and artists who will be mentored by the aforementioned stars to produce something for BA.

What was BA thinking? Nowhere is the mixed, irrational planning of this campaign better exemplified than in the official launch photographs for the promotion. A clearly bemused chef, artist and actor hold a paper plane bearing the London 2012 logo while standing in front of a half-finished stadium. Marketing scholars will know there is a technical term for the approach shown in this photograph, it’s called the kitchen sink.

Chefs! Modern art! The Olympics! The only thing missing is any kind of marketing coherence. To find that you have to look to BA’s competitors. For the past decade, the marketers at the likes of Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines have been running long-term, brand-focused campaigns that have very specific objectives in mind.

I am not arguing that the £40m spent on becoming the official airline of London 2012 plus the additional £10m required to promote it will not have some impact. The initial Great Britons campaign has, after all, generated 139 likes on Facebook already (only 30 less than Bring Back Red Tizer Man). My point is that the money would have had a better return if it had been invested in a more brand-centric manner on a more enduring, strategic campaign.

That is the other hidden danger of taking the communications-first rather than brand-centric approach – it results in fleeting, opportunistic and ultimately episodic brand building. Once Transformers 3 has had its five days of airtime what will Double A do for the other 360 days of the year?
And when the Olympic flame dies over East London next summer, BA will once again be back at the brand drawing board, or more likely looking for that next big marketing ’opportunity’.

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