Forget advertising. Marketing is now all about the service

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Brands from Foster’s to Mini are proving that, whatever your business, marketing is best when it’s service-led.

Every dog has its day. But advertising – that oldest of hunting hounds – may be heading for retirement. It appears that in these days of anti-capitalist protests and rock-bottom consumer trust in corporations, brands are keen to distance themselves from traditional advertising methods.

Chivas Regal has announced plans for a feature film, featuring four characters developed on behalf of the spirits brand which, according to Mick Mahoney, executive creative director at the company’s agency Euro RSCG, is “still attributable to Chivas but isn’t branded in an ad-type of way.” In a moment of enormous irony, the ad agency is telling us that it’s deliberately avoiding making advertising.

“By using online, TV and print media to advertise the film rather than the product, we’re able to concentrate on developing Chivas Regal’s association with friendship outside of advertising,” continues Mahoney.

This isn’t the first time that a brand has moved into content creation, but rarely has advertising been cast in such a negative light by the very people involved in it.

It seems appropriate for a time of severe economic turmoil and financial panic. Consumers believe that just one in five brands has a notable positive impact on their quality of life, according to a survey of 50,000 people by Havas Media. Anti-corporate-greed protestors are occupying the land outside the London Stock Exchange; young protestors are recreating the famous 1936 Jarrow March for Jobs; and we are all anxious about spending money in case there is a double-dip recession. As one senior marketer admitted to me this week, his customers “see advertising as spending money to persuade them to spend money they don’t have”.

Earlier this month, Guardian columnist George Monbiot described advertising as “a poison that demeans even love”, garnering hundreds of supportive comments online. On MarketingWeek.co.uk, a response to Monbiot’s arguments drew anti-advertising comments from those within marketing. One person wrote that despite working in the industry themselves, they felt advertisers needed to take responsibility for “debt that you seem glad to perpetuate as you goad people to live fantasy lives”.

So how should brands get their message across without falling foul of consumer perceptions? The answer is that every time you carry out a piece of marketing, make sure it feels beneficial to customers rather than self-promotional. As Marcel Holsheimer, a vice-president at IBM, told me last week: “An action can feel like marketing to you, but to the customer it must feel like it is service.”

This service mantra is echoed by renowned marketing academic Philip Kotler. He has dubbed the current relationship between brands and their potential customers as ’Marketing 3.0’ claiming one of the core tenets is “whatever your business, it is a service business”.

Giving your customers a service does not need to be worthy. It just needs to be useful. Beer brand Foster’s is an excellent example. It revitalised the much-loved comic character Alan Partridge, played by comedian Steve Coogan, by sponsoring an online series Mid Morning Matters, which has been so well received that it will now run on TV channel Sky Atlantic.

The service in this case is that Foster’s has given consumers access to some cult content that might never otherwise have come into existence. And the brand is hoping to do it all over again with The Fast Show. The series ceased showing on the BBC more than a decade ago, but its catchphrases – like “Suits You, Sir” – are still known today. Creators Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson turned down a fourth series on terrestrial TV, but were prepared to go online for the beer company. Foster’s is giving consumers much-desired content that would not exist without it.

Car brand Mini is hoping to do the same with a five-part web series, showing on Facebook, which has been created in conjunction with Vice magazine. The series gets consumers to interact and become part of the storyline. The message “buy a Mini” never features.

Other companies are creating their own versions of online TV channels through YouTube. There are rumoured to be more than 100 branded channels in the process of launching, including one from drinks business Red Bull.

Every time you carry out a piece of marketing, make sure it feels beneficial to your customers rather than self-promotional. As Marcel Holsheimer, a vice-president at IBM, told me last week: ’An action can feel like marketing to you, but to the customer it must feel like it is a service.’

Of course, content will not be the right way for every company to offer their customers service. For some businesses, partnerships in their local communities might make more impact. Or banks could offer consumers a free financial audit to help people better manage their money.

There is no one set way to make sure you follow Kotler’s advice and become a service business. It is a mindset; be seen as helping consumers get what they want and need, rather than being viewed as pushing out unwanted messages to convince people to buy unwanted stuff.

So is this really the end for advertising as we know it? Probably not. But it should no longer be the default position. However, every so often, it appears, an ad still counts: supporters of the Occupy protest movement have turned to TV ads to get their message across.

One ad shows supporters articulating messages such as: “I want corporations out of the government and people back in.” The crowdsourced ad has even been running on US TV stations not known for their anti-capitalist views, such as Fox News, in an attempt to make the message appeal to a mass market.

To sum up: anti-capitalists are running ads; beer companies are making comedy; and cars are writing sitcoms. Do yourself a service and get involved.

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