Advertising effectiveness has never been improved by trying to build relationships

Marketers should focus on encoding their brand into the minds of customers – not trying to build relationships with them.

Secret Marketer
There are times in my career when I have had to take a mental pause. A pause to check my surroundings, ensure I haven’t slipped into some alternate reality and then with bile rising take a deep breathe and attempt to exhibit control.

It can be the excuse for a communications brief written by a product owner, or worse, by someone in my own team. Surely a brief can’t be a brief if it doesn’t mention the customer, any insights as to why our service is a solution or the role of the brand?

Perhaps we should rename it the ‘Shopping list’: One campaign for product X, communicating A, B, C features, and Y price point, to achieve Z% in sales revenue. Grrr. What are we meant to do with that wish list?

It is often at this point when I wonder a) Where have I failed? b) Would be better off without marketing or product managers? and c) Should take the Mini MBA that Ritson goes on about?

Starting with the customer should be intuitive. But, when people are paid to think about a product or brand all day, I suppose it’s natural for them to forget that and think product or brand first.

Even with the meanest understanding, marketers should grasp that brands work subconsciously.

More recently, any number of ‘thought pieces’ written about the future, new consumer behaviours, the role of media or digital transformation, have started to convey a new orthodoxy in marketing thinking. In many ways it’s not a new fallacy, but it is a pathetic one.

I read in a report on the state of social media in 2021 that “building relationships on social media is exactly what brands need to do to ensure what they spend on advertising is effective”.

In the same way that Wordsworth’s famous clouds were feeling a bit lonely, wandering about in the sky all alone, the new pathetic fallacy in marketing is that brands have feelings.

Brands don’t build relationships

It is an increasingly unorthodox view, but I’m going to say it: brands really do not build relationships. Marketers should be very careful not to attribute human feelings and responses to inanimate objects.

Even with the meanest understanding, marketers should grasp that brands work subconsciously. I know how hard it is to explain that to CEOs, MDs, salespeople and product owners. But the effect of a strong brand is entirely passive. Less neural activity happens. Why? Because choice has been hard wired into the customer’s brain.

While this might feel like sharp practice, and not very purposeful, it is how brands work, and it is very effective in delivering sales. The best marketers encode their brand into the minds of their category target audience. Encoding is a euphemism. We trick the customer’s mind into automatically selecting our brand and ignoring all others.

As far as I am aware, advertising campaign effectiveness has never been improved by attempting to build a relationship. The most effective campaigns entertain prospects and provide memorable and rich neurological stimuli, so that prospects associate the brand, product or service with the need or situation. Being thirsty on a hot day (Coca-Cola), taking a tea break mid-morning (Kit Kat), breakfast (McDonald’s), hanging out with friends watching the game (Budweiser). No relationships built there. Just putting the brand in the right place, at the right time, memorably. Nothing more complicated, or ambitious.

I recently explained this to a very senior vice-president in my organisation. Once he got over feeling duped, he got the need to understand customers better, advertise frequently, at scale, and with impact, to build up the brand memories to achieve this effect.

As Jenni Romaniak of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute once said: “Humans may be made from star dust, but brands are made from memories.” And building memories, not relationships, is the business of brands.

Our anonymous marketer has spent years working for big brands in large organisations. They have seen what you have seen, been left scratching their head at the decisions (or indecision) of others, had the same fights. They have also seen the possibility and opportunity of marketing. In this regular series, our marketer on the inside will unpick the failings, articulate the frustrations and speak up for marketers everywhere.