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Brands saving the world gets in the way of our day jobs

Are brands saving the world? Or is it a needless distraction?

The Drum believes that ‘marketing can change the world.' It recently challenged creatives to change the world by destigmatizing mental health (in a day). Prior to this, The Drum indulged the idea of universal salvation through marketing by showing off other examples of world-saving marketing – usually linked to charities and non-profits. Richard Curtis, of Love Actually infamy, even added his approval.

Much of this is laudable, and it would take a huge cynic to doubt the sincerity of gestures like these.

Yet saving the world seems to be getting in the way of the day job. No doubt saving the world makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside. After all, Superman didn’t spend his days advertising fizzy water in a can, or producing consumer segmentations for toilet paper brands.

Saving the world is much more important than grubby old commercial business, right?

I’m not so sure.

This all seems part of a wider Curtis-esq narrative many of us are being fed.

The story usually starts from the premise that today’s consumer has somehow ‘evolved’ to consume brands in a radically different way from their parents. They have become ‘post-commercial,' attracted to meaningful, symbolic, and purpose-driven products.

In this world brands have gone from functional signifiers of quality, to philosophical/mythical concepts that help consumers self-actualize. A recent HBR piece noted consumers ‘increasingly expect brands to have not just functional benefits but a social purpose.'

There’s often a diagram from Simon Sinek.

Many in marketing buy into it. Perhaps uncomfortable with the idea that their profession is (whisper it) inextricably linked to the grubby business of buying and selling, giving purpose, or meaning, to millions seems like a much better way to spend a working week. Jim Stengel’s book ‘Grow’ provides some (shaky) evidence for the power of brands with social purpose.

Marketing has changed the world. But it’s done so in a very boring and gradual way, which has involved the spread of capitalism and large amounts of cash being made.

As Tim Hartford has shown in his ’50 Things That Made The Modern Economy,' human progress isn’t all about great human political struggle, or set piece battles. In reality it’s often made up of a series of inane little stories.

One deceptively dull-sounding episode is on market research. It tells the tale of how, around 100 years ago, big companies re-thought their relationship with consumers. It’s a story of how manufacturers, like Ford, went from supplying consumer needs, to creating consumer demand.

‘Marketing’ was born.

By the mid-century Peter Drucker, the management guru, was writing about how business now had only two crucial functions: marketing and innovation. ‘Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs. Marketing is the distinguishing, unique function of the business.’

Many misread this history. They overstate the ability of marketing to lead culture or change the world, and in the process, devalue it by forgetting its fundamental role. As Mark Ritson exasperatedly pointed out at Mumberella this year, the perception that brands are ‘about world peace, not about making money’ leads many to dismiss it.

It also leads to marketers badly misreading their relationship with consumers.

Philosopher Slavoj Zizek describes modern brand experiences as a series of ‘semantic overinvestments.'

Walk into any Starbucks and you’ll instantly get the idea. You’re not just consuming coffee, you’re consuming a tale about the environment, the local community, and farmers in a faraway land. Edelman, a public relations company, has gone as far as to suggest you can ascertain 'ideological positions' based on what brands a person buys.

Brand building in this world starts to feel a bit like university tutorials on existential philosophy. Start with the ‘why.' Define ‘authenticity’ or ‘real.' To misquote Sartre 'the existence of my brand precedes its essence. What, therefore, is my brand essence!?’

This is a lot for a cup of coffee.

The reality? Consumers are not particularly bothered. They interact with brands at very low levels of attention, they shop around and are not particularly loyal, and have neither the time nor the inclination to deconstruct a complicated political/environmental/existential point of view from a brand.

To go back to Love Actually, the consumer is completely ignoring a brand that thinks it’s in a deep and meaningful relationship.

A raft of research has highlighted how consumers don’t treat brands like friends, or consume them like newspapers or novels. Consumers have not evolved to become ‘post-commercial’; they do not make purchasing decisions in radically different ways to their parents.

In failing to understand this very one-sided relationship, ‘semantic overinvestments,' philosophical tracts, or political manifestos are in danger of replacing good branding.

So let’s put down the existential plays, political manifestos, and sociology dissertations for a moment, and consider some economic history. Happily, we would see that the dreaded ‘why’ has already been answered: it turns out marketing is at root a commercial process; a central component to any successful business keen to attract consumers and turn a profit.

By inflating the role of marketing to ‘world-changer’ status and losing ourselves in existential searches for purpose, we paradoxically risk talking down its fundamental role, and make it less effective.

Neil Simpson is associate planning director at DDB New York. He tweets at @Neilsimeh2

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