Advertising is an expression of consumer capitalism. Yet to succeed in today’s marketplace, brands need to become more anti-capitalist, believes Innocean’s global head of innovation and partnerships, Mordecai.
Consumers want a better deal, and they deserve it, too. Not just better products and better services, but better advertising. To deliver on this, brands must break free from established tropes that define how they do business. Or to put it another way, they need to start thinking anti-capitalist to be more pro-consumer.
This might sound contradictory, but as a long-standing anti-capitalist and activist who works in advertising – the communications of capitalism – let me explain. By anti-capitalism I mean not believing you must participate in the capitalist structure in which you were raised. Instead, it about is believing there is an alternative.
I fell into advertising rather than entering by a conventional route. I was already a storyteller, though back then I was working in digital TV production. But the budgets were small, so I went to brands to get funding. Then those brands asked me to start telling their stories too, and things grew from there.
As a storyteller, people have always been my focus. To be pro-consumer is to be in support of consumers getting a better deal. And in advertising, that can only happen when humans are at the centre of what we do – especially storytelling.
Yet how many brands today communicate in a human-centric way? How often can you see people at their heart of their strategies. How many demonstrate they believe in their consumers as nuanced individuals capable of making their own choices? Far too few, in my opinion.
To be more anti-capitalist, a brand must think and act differently, and it can start to do so by challenging business and marketing’s pervasive tropes – of which let me give you three examples.
The first is the winner-takes-all approach to doing business that leads many companies to let competition shape their strategies. I’m not saying a brand owner’s rivals’ competing strategies should not be analysed and unpicked, far from it. My point is, brands' competition should not be used as a template for what they do, how they do business or their point of view.
You can look to Away, a luggage brand that set out to turn a relatively boring necessity into an enviable statement at an affordable price without structuring itself around a mission to compete with Samsonite.
Or the brands that rewrote the purchase and delivery rule book, such as subscription toothbrush Quip. Meat alternatives are also leading the way, like the once-scrappy start-ups Beyond Meat and Impossible. Crypto-currencies are also not out to compete with cash, but provide an alternative to it.
The next trope to challenge is established systems that all too often act against inclusivity. One powerful example is Anomaly, which put its own money into the business ventures of clients, such as beauty line Eos.
AdQuick’s advances in the out-of-home market disrupted a narrowly controlled sector and broke the system by offering more opportunity for smaller brands to engage in a system that was previously only for big hitters.
We’re also seeing this with storied industries disrupted by the influx of VCs and collective ownership, with, for example, the likes of Serena Williams, Jessica Chastain and Eva Longoria investing in the US National Women’s Soccer League LA team.
The third trope concerns received wisdom and established practices around building affinity through targeting. This is about celebrating not just one aspect of a person as identified by traditional segmentation, but the whole individual.
We see calls to this through the increased encouragement to honour intersectionality with, for example, the added option of non-binary as distinction and removal of such self-disclosure boxes on job applications altogether. The generational push for acknowledgment of trans women at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement is another illustration of this.
This is about a brand recognising it can’t reach every audience, nor can it appeal to all – not least while audiences are fragmenting at pace and growing increasingly diverse.
And it’s about brands re-thinking how best to build affinity. On-screen inclusivity is essential and should be a given, but more is needed. I’m talking about creative concepts and projects that don’t so much build affinity through direct identification but that are open and welcoming everyone to the table.
Think MediaCom’s ‘Inclusive Planning’ initiative, a self-declared departure from the status quo where diverse audiences are only considered for specialist briefs.
Or Vice Media’s challenge to advertisers over blocklists – in particular, around blocking Black Lives Matter, Muslim, queer and related key lists which Vice has removed from brand blocklists.
To truly build affinity with their brands, the time has come for senior marketers to shift their focus from the more exclusive brand safe to the more inclusive brand suitable.
These are just some of the spaces in which brand owners can act more anti-capitalist.
In today’s world, if brands are to engage more effectively with the people they serve as individuals, the only way to behave is pro-consumer.