Many marketers have been seduced by the dream that network giants Facebook, Google and Instagram have promised... ‘We can target the shit out of your ads, and make sure your money is reaching people at the right time with the right message’.
But direct mail alone can’t build brands, and programmatic buying is no different.
The key to brands thriving in the new world is to harness the oldest trick in the advertising playbook – create a powerful shared idea about your product or service to elevate your brand.
Since 2008, brands have been stuck in an endless cycle of growing KPIs, shrinking budgets, and evermore stakeholders demanding greater returns. It feels like a safer bet to send customised ads to a targeted audience who actually care about your product in the first place, avoiding the wastage of reaching people who aren’t interested.
But it’s precisely this waste that builds brands. Brand advertising with a huge reach doesn't only focus on people who are interested in your product right now, but also taps into the huge audience who could want or need your product in the future.
People don’t know what they want until they’re told what they want
Before Spotify, how compelling was it to borrow music instead of buying it? Likewise, to hitch a ride home in a random stranger’s car, or electing to stay in a stranger’s spare room instead of a nice safe hotel?
But when Airbnb invested in a big idea like ‘live like a local’ that people could share and relate to, suddenly sleeping in a stranger’s house seems not only normal, but desirable. It’s the same with ‘get there’ by Uber. All powerful, shared ideas from the same school as ‘just do it.’
All brands understand the precise group of people that they want to market to, but the best brands know the importance of being understood at a much wider level and they know that long term brand growth is worth more than any short-term sales bumps bought at a premium through targeted social posts.
If you’re a brand, you need people to buy into a common idea of who you are and what you stand for. If you’re a struggling, tired brand, your first job on the road to revitalisation is to re-establish this big, shared idea.
Here’s how we create a big, shared cultural idea worth plastering everywhere:
Remember that people love products
They only occasionally love brands. Sometimes I work with brands who focus so much on their history, heritage, process and purpose that the actual product they are selling and the audience they are targeting have become seemingly less of a priority. All that ‘induction day’ stuff is well and good, but what really excites the consumer is a fantastic product that does what it says on the tin and is great value for money. Whether it’s a £300 pair of sneakers or a £30,000 car, people fall in love with the product first and then develop a relationship with the brand.
So, it’s no surprise that the world’s strongest brands are those heavy hitters who build layer after layer of desirability around a great product or service.
The Apple iPod was ‘1,000 songs in your pocket’ before all your friends had one. Beats headphones were ‘hear what the artist hears’ before they were on every celeb and sports star. Uber grew by word of mouth and peer-to-peer referrals way before they were encouraging us all to ‘Get There.’
Every revolutionary product that became a world-class brand started with a clear and aspirational message of who should buy in and for what benefit.
Attitude beats positioning
Lots of brands have a unique selling proposition. The best brands have an attitude at their core. Messages are messy and open to misunderstanding, whereas attitude is unmistakable and easily identifiable.
Lots of people buy Vans sneakers. Genuinely awesome, edgy cool skate kids from California to Cardiff wear Vans. Middle aged IT workers in Connecticut wear Vans. The reason Vans can appeal to such a vast audience is because they have a great product (tick), and communicate it with an attitudinal communications platform (tick).
Whatever campaign they’re running, whatever platform they’re building – whether they’re working with punk rock kids or hip-hop kids, whether it’s for skaters or surfers or just fashionistas – Vans can always be distilled down to a single attitude. Rebellion.
The now infamous 'Are you beach body ready' campaign from Protein World wasn’t about the message — that was simply a vehicle for outrage, otherwise known as warned media. The strength of that campaign, which delivered a return of £1.5 million in product sales off the back of a £250,000 investment, was that the real target audience saw their hard-core fitness attitude reflected back at them, and clearly identified a brand for them.
While a campaign message can be easily discountable and open to misinterpretation, an attitude allows you to express your brand in clear and uncertain terms.
That attitude is received by consumers in a way that feels relevant to them. If you are the hard-core target audience, you can buy your skate shoes from Vans with confidence because they have been a part of your tribe for generations. If you just want a low-key sneaker to wear with your chinos that makes you feel a little bit cool, hey, Vans has got you as well.
Keep it simple, stupid
As brand owners, we need to clearly tell people who we are, what we believe in, who we are for and who we are not for. And we need to stick to that position for the long-term.
No brand was built in a financial quarter, so why do we put such a premium on small, unsustainable campaign bursts?
We firmly believe in the IPA’s gold standard 60/40 investment split — 60% of budget committed to long term and strategic brand growth, and 40% dedicated to short term sales driving tactical work. But that 40% still needs to hammer home desirability around your product and land your brand attitude. Otherwise, it is disconnected and, because consumers won’t be able to identify your brand in the communications, it will also be ineffective.
And if you disrupt your brand attitude with inconsistent short-term sales driving ads, you do your long-term brand building a disservice.
Dan Deeks-Osburn is strategy director at independent creative agency Impero.