How meaningful brands became indispensable utilities for the modern world

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When I think of the old term ‘advertiser funded content’ (AFC), I’m reminded of my time as head of advertising at Vodafone in the early noughties, where – within the £70m brand advertising budget – I ring-fenced £250k for some experimental AFC.

Through a specialist production company called New Moon (who went on to create the films which helped London win the summer Olympics bid), we had worked up some pilot footage for a sports and lifestyle TV show, harnessing our sponsorship of Manchester United and The Derby for a series with the working title, ‘Footballers’ lives’. Granada loved it and gave us a juicy 9pm slot over six weeks, and we were good to go with sponsorship credits for our own show. That’s until the ITV scheduler intervened putting it back to after News at 10 and the forecast ratings all went pear shaped. So, after a lot of planning work, it ended up on the shelf.

Wind the clock forward just a few years to 2004 with 50% of UK homes enjoying 1Mb broadband, and something called YouTube arrived inviting us to ‘Broadcast Yourself’. Suddenly there was no need to negotiate with commissioners to put branded video content in front of a world-wide audience. The new challenge was how to gain traction and shareability of a story with the focus not on the brand itself, but on some kind of higher brand purpose.

One of my favourite early examples is a double Cannes Lions winner from 2006, by Unilever for Dove, as part of their ‘Real Beauty’ campaign. Called Dove Evolution, the time-lapse film features the director’s fiancée going through a transformation with full make-up, hair -styling and comprehensive Photoshop retouching and facial enhancements, until the super model created is unrecognisable compared to the real woman they started with. All this happens in just over a minute with the final frame on a virtual 48 sheet poster. The video – funded with some left-over budget - was the embodiment of the Dove Real Beauty story and a global example of brand purpose in action, (now the declared imperative for all Unilever campaigns). It also spawned a series of parodies and spoofs including this rather brilliant Slob Evolution.

Today, branded content and so-called native advertising is worth £1.17bn in the UK and growing in media value at 30% per annum with many notable ‘purpose’ strategies winning Cannes awards. Last year REI Co-op Outdoor (think Decathlon) won nine gongs for their #OptOutside campaign. The chief executive officer closed all the REI stores on Black Friday, gave his staff the day off, and encouraged the US public to eschew the likes of Amazon and the shopping malls on America’s biggest retail day, and discover the great outdoors instead. Brilliant!

Another notable brand initiative is Kenco: Coffee vs Gangs which showcases the work Kenco does in Honduras to steer young men away from a life of crime. This is ‘Fairtrade plus’ as the company aims to change the futures of youngsters growing up in the troubled regions where coffee is grown.

Higher brand purpose is tech-enabled brand utility

The web – and specifically digital video - gave brands a dynamic medium they could truly own, to go beyond slogans and logos and become genuinely useful and sometimes highly entertaining, and therefore shareable. Now the emergence of mobile technology and artificial intelligence have brought some innovative brands closer to the pinnacle of purpose: indispensable brand utility.

Just looking at my own home screen, I can see the Citymapper and Strava apps, both of which I use nearly every day. Imagine if established brands had developed these in the first place and what incredible brand equity they would enjoy today – not to mention the rich first party data.

Perhaps a step above utility is accessibility, and two brands of note have excelled here.

First we have Listerine – originally famous for Clifford the dragon and a bad case of halitosis. Now they’re making a name for themselves by helping the blind “feel” the AdvancedWhite smiles of their friends and family through their smile detector app. Using the camera in a one-to-one situation or on FaceTime, the owner’s phone vibrates whenever it detects a smile, transforming conversations for blind people. It’s all captured here in this very moving video.

Second – and perhaps even more impressive – is Samsung’s Memory Recaller, originally launched in Thailand, which is a godsend for Alzheimer’s sufferers and their families. It works by using facial recognition technology to detect the identity of the person standing in front of the patient. It then uses auto speech through a headphone to seamlessly inform them, “this is your grandson, Jack”. It can even track recent activities and conversation to help avoid repetition.

With the Memory Recaller, Samsung have developed a game-changing brand utility which genuinely improves the lives of Alzheimer’s patients, maintaining vital connections and alleviating the isolation of memory loss.

Making brands matter in a consumer to business world

OK, so not all brands will achieve worthiness on this scale. But given the digital tools we have today - like artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, and the near-instant speed of data processing – now is the time to be developing that indispensable brand utility which really matters to your customers.

One of the most repeated stats at marketing conferences this year is from the global Havas Meaningful Brands survey: consumers couldn’t give a monkey’s if 74% of brands disappeared tomorrow. The survey of 300,000 individuals also finds that 60% of all brand content is deemed to be poor or irrelevant. At the same time, the sheer volume of content is growing exponentially.

Now, more than ever, we’re living in a consumer to business world, where our customers call the shots. Today’s entitled consumer expects brands to make a contribution to their wellbeing or quality of life.

My relatively recent days at Vodafone battling with TV commissioners and schedulers seem light years away now. We’ve now got the technology to excel at properly delighting consumers with revolutionary brand experiences.

And that might just be your golden ticket to the 26% club of brands people actually care about.

Guy Phillipson is the chairman of iCrossing UK and former chief executive of the Internet Advertising Bureau UK.

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