People don’t love your brand - they don’t even like it

Marketing is a funny business. We use words like “lovemarks” and “engagement” and “brand love” and “affinity” like people are actually in love with the brands we create.

It’s not just that they happen to throw our brand of pickle relish in the cart because it happens to be on sale for a nickel less than the competition. No. We marketers actually believe that people wake up in the morning consumed by our pickle relish. They get ready in front of their mirror -- in which is tucked a cute little picture of our pickle relish. They rush to social to see what our pithy little pickle relish has to say. And they pine for the time when they can finally get out of the office and get their hands on yet another jar of our beloved pickle relish.

I use pickle relish because I recently came across this cartoon (which I licensed for use in this article), and it made me laugh.

Brand loyalty is dead. If it was ever alive. The truth is that a brand’s biggest competition is no longer the competition. A brand’s biggest competition is flat indifference. We have too much to care about to care about brands. My agency did some research to find if consumer indifference was real and found that 90 percent of consumers say that, aside from a few, they don’t care about the vast majority of brands. And 73 percent of consumers said that the majority of brands they buy every day are interchangeable. Wait. But what about our pickle relish?

These days, it’s less about creating ads to promote pickle relish and more about creating work that moves consumers out of their natural state of uncaring about pickle relish brand A versus relish brand B. See, we’ve realized something disturbing over the last few years -- that advertising alone has lost its ability to move people to give a shit. We are over-Instagrammed and Facebooked and student loaned and DVR’d and iPhoned and baby pictured. Mass media no longer affects us. So we’ve changed our agency process a little bit (actually, a lot). Because to make changes where changes can really be effective, you have to move upstream from advertising and make decisions from the top.

Here are a few of the highlights of what brands have to do to truly move consumers.

KNOW YOUR PURPOSE:

By now, every mammal that draws marketing air has read Simon Sinek’s Start With Why...or, at a minimum, has watched his TED talk. Simon was onto something brilliant. “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it,” he said. And he was right. Before a brand can move consumers, it needs to move its own employees. It needs to know what it stands for in the world...why it exists. Brands don’t just need to give its employees a place to come to work, they need to give them a reason to come to work. The only way a brand can be authentic in their messaging is if they first look in the mirror and are true to themselves. I’ll use an unexpected example of a company that I think is doing this well right now: Bud Light. What? Bud Light? Yes. Not all purpose-based advertising has to be Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty. Bud Light (with the help of Wieden+Kennedy) finally understands why they exist – to give friends something to drink while they’re having good times. So the goal of their advertising should be to give friends something to talk about…to create pop culture that can be talked about over the beer they make. Don’t overthink it. It’s not about taste or ingredients or calories. It’s about enhancing friendship. And how have they done it? “Dilly, dilly…”

DRIVE OWNERSHIP THROUGHOUT YOUR ORGANIZATION:

Lots of brands we see align on their “why” and put their pencils down. So no one outside of the CMO and brand marketer knows why they’re so excited about their pickle relish. It’s a common mistake, but it’s inexcusable. Don’t keep your purpose a secret. Brands need to be deliberate about sharing their why. They need to write it on the conference room walls and put together employee training programs. The bottom line is that, for a brand to maximize effectiveness, everyone from the chief pickle officer down to the pickle farmer needs to know precisely why they go to work every day. And it better be something more motivating than “to sell another jar of pickle relish.” Boats only get faster if everyone is rowing in the same direction.

DEVELOP PRODUCTS, SERVICES AND EXPERIENCES THAT ADD VALUE TO PEOPLE’S LIVES:

This has always been my favorite part of being a creative. I’ve always liked making things more than I’ve liked making ads. And I think finally...clients are starting to appreciate this type of thinking from their agency partners. We’ve been on a tear recently of helping clients create real value and realize disproportionate marketing ROI by showing them things that go well beyond ads. We’ve helped a grocery store create wine and beer bars within their stores to drive incremental, uncaptured revenue. And we’ve worked with an insurance company to launch a new sub-brand offering a new product to an untapped target. This has been so interesting that it’s led us to hire consultants and law school grads and private equity partners, and helped us create a new start-up studio within our agency. It’s allowed us to hire people that would have never previously considered advertising and will hopefully allow us to gain respect from brands who never previously respected ad agencies for anything more than creating, well, a piece of advertising.

COMMUNICATE IN WAYS THAT BREAK THROUGH AND MOVE PEOPLE TO ACT:

This is advertising. But in today’s world, we have to produce so much more than that. We have to produce work that crashes through people’s overly busy, hectic lives and compels them to do. The only way to deliver this type of work is to embrace strategy from the top down. It’s easy for a company to align around a “kitchen sink strategy” that everyone at the organization loves, because everyone at the organization sees their ideas in it. Companies can create a two-page “distilled brand essence” because they don’t have to execute off of the strategy -- the poor ad agency does.

If you haven't involved your ad agency in all of the steps above, then your communications will undoubtedly be inauthentic and hollow – and miss the mark in connecting with consumers.

“We open on a little boy starving in the Serengeti...he struggles to take a step forward before falling to the ground and filling his hand with sand. [Hard cut: Cheetos]” Side note, if you haven’t seen SNL’s “Pitch Meeting” skit and want a good laugh, go watch it. And then maybe watch it a second time for good measure.

When a company works with an agency, from the beginning, to take part in the upstream strategic work, the agency is on the hook to deliver breakthrough work off of that compelling strategy that truly moves the needle. And that’s where the magic happens. That’s how you help a consumer connect with pickle relish brand A versus pickle relish brand B. And maybe even create a little love.

We are in the business of advertising. But the action of advertising doesn’t have to be all we’re good at. We are all, at our core, bright people brought together to use creativity to solve business problems. We think we have found a way to have more meaningful engagements with brands looking to make a difference and to move consumers to finally give a damn. We arrived at this by turning our skillset on ourselves: asking ourselves what our purpose was, driving ownership throughout our organization, developing unique products and services and communicating in ways that moved people to act. Not surprisingly, it worked. An aside: we are currently accepting any and all RFP’s for underdog pickle relish brands looking to be loved by consumers.

Joe Parrish is partner and chief creative officer at The Variable. He tweets @joeparrish

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Joe Parrish

Joe Parrish is partner and chief creative officer at The Variable.

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