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Back to the Future: Remastering the Timeless Art of Brand Engagement

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In the world of marketing and communications, there is unprecedented disorientation, triggered by the explosion of digital platforms that promise to revolutionize the relationship between consumers and brands. The entire industry is intoxicated by the potential of "big data" to maximize return-on-investment. Yes, "measurement" of the effectiveness of advertising is critical, and increasingly feasible. But advertising folks are now tempted to consider themselves high-tech inventors rather than creative idea generators. The entire industry is scared of obsolescence, slayed by geek squads. We are chickens and the sky is falling.

Dozens of books have been published offering salvation. The buzzwords abound: CRM, cookies, digital ecosystems, experience optimization, platformization, and algorithmic customization... In the process, we have forgotten about consumers. What drives them? And what role do brands play in lives?

Let's take a deep breath. Only the "brand idea" -- once and forever, the long-term relationship between consumer and brand that remains consistent yet evolves over time and place -- resolves the tension between "traditional" brand building imperatives and the opportunities unleashed by technology and a new era of consumer empowerment. (Think Nike's "Just Do It" or Apple's "Think Different.") The former is top-down, fueled by message clarity and deep understanding of consumer motivations, articulated by the manufacturer. The latter is bottom-up, unpredictable, on the street -- of, by and for the people.

The clash between models, one that has existed since the down of the industrial revolution and another entirely 21st century, has led to decision-making schizophrenia. With the "brand idea" as epicenter, conceptual order is forged from chaos. Conceptual elegance and executional responsiveness are not incompatible. Brands that are both coherent and digitally progressive -- Axe, Omo, Uniqlo, Kit Kat, Nike, Apple, Rolex etc. -- reign supreme, boasting the highest margins and most loyal consumers.

Brave New World?

From video games to 4G smart phones and 300 million bloggers in China, the digital world has resulted in an explosion of lifestyle opportunities and consumer empowerment. This has major implications for brands. In this new era, consumers will no longer sit passively in front of the television set waiting for commercials to interrupt them with information. They expect "participation." They want to join in on the fun. They want brands as involving as any of their other entertainment options. And they want to be rewarded for loyalty. They don't want to be talked down to.

But the plethora of digital communications - social networks, blogs, WeChat, short message texts, viral videos -- has made things extremely confusing for both marketers and consumers. Messages can no longer be "controlled." Consumers can hijack brands.

Chaos has erupted.

"Engagement" is required. But "engagement" must be more than messy, short-term "direct interaction" with consumers. "Engagement" must be like a wedding proposal: a) long-term (that is, consistent in message), b) enriched by dialog between consumers and manufacturers and b) a commitment that results in concrete benefits for both parties.

Engagement must be constructed. We must pull off the hat trick of simultaneously permitting consumers to participate with brands while empowering marketers to "manage" message and dialog. In the following paragraphs, we briefly outline a simple-yet-nuanced framework to grab the holy grail of marketing, harmony between: a) long-term brand equity and short-term tactical messaging, and b) between consistency and real-time results driven by new technology. Two elements, consumer insight and the brand idea, are conceptual; and two, engagement ideas and connection planning, are executional.

Consumer Insights: The Human Heart and Profit Margins

Technology is not changing humanity but, rather, empowering us to satisfy ageless urges in new ways.

Let's not forget the eternal importance of "consumer insight," the secret sauce of power brands. Insights are not observations. They explain fundamental motivations of behavior and preference. They answer the question "Why?" We want to survive, be safe, be accepted, be acknowledged and, ultimately, transcend the limitations of social structures.

The best insights are conflicts, or tensions, of the heart. Teen-agers want to avoid alienation but also assert their individuality. "Mature" adults want to maintain autonomy but avoid isolation. Tensions can be between competing "human truths" - aspirations that unify all of us. Or they can be between competing "cultural truths," yearnings that differentiate clusters of people. (Desired engagement with society is different in, say, Confucian China or Buddhist Thailand versus individualistic America.) Or they can be between competing human and cultural truths.

Consumers spend more time with brands that resolve conflicting desires. Their role in life will be greater and pricing can be adjusted accordingly. Consumer insight is the font of robust profit margins, a truth ignored as we dream of salvation through the latest gee-whiz app or data mining technique.

The Brand Idea: From Chaos to Order

A beautiful brand idea is invisible, but possesses the gravitation force to unify messages across an exploding array of media, geography and cultures. The brand idea is more than a theoretical abstraction. It remains the lynchpin of consumer loyalty, efficient media placement and operational holism.

On an untamed brandscape, the brand idea ensures consistency across time, media, promotion. Nike lives and breathes a "Just Do It" spirit. Everywhere. Axe deodorant promises "irresistible attraction" to guys looking to score. Everywhere. And Coca Cola transcends the physical plane of "quenching thirst" to embody "moments of happiness." Everywhere.

The brand idea is more than a "positioning statement." It crystalizes the long-term relationship between consumer and brand that remains consistent yet evolves over time. Every brand needs a soul, etched with conceptual craftsmanship. The brand idea is a fusion of the consumer insight and "unique brand offer," the latter something that differentiates a product from competitors, on emotional or physical levels. The "UBO" can spring from a "product truth," a differentiating characteristic "inside" the product. Or it can be a "brand truth," an equity forged over time by consistent communications. For example, Volvo equals safety. Johnson & Johnson equals "tenderness."

Engagement Ideas: From Passive Exposure to Active Participation

The average Joe does not want to be bombarded with a never-ending series of disjointed creative. The best brands simplify life, not complicate it. That's why all creative ideas -- I like to call them "engagement ideas" -- must also be expressions of the brand idea. They can be short-term, long-term, thematic or promotional, but they must be manifestations of the brand's soul. Each idea reinforces the long-term relationship between people and the brands they love, lest confusion reign.

Today's business environment is ultra-competitive, hyper-accelerated. So creative has to be more than "interesting." It has to do more than break through clutter. Super Bowl Sunday notwithstanding, the days of sitting in front of the television waiting for cool TV ads to air are over. Yes, creative must be persuasive. And messages must be elegantly crafted. But communications success is now measured by depth of engagement.

In a new era of technological liberation, creative should not only draw attention but also elicit active response. Great creative ideas - for example, Nike's "Fuel" band, Axe's wake-up alarm service, Uniqlo's world Uniclock, Burger King's "Whopper Freak Out," Kit Kat's "Lucky Charms" - are now "participation platforms." (Hopefully, they are also easy to enjoy and not over-engineered.) Great ideas are now "made," not broadcast. They can be "things" people want to spend time with. The more time people spend using, playing with and spreading an idea, the deeper their involvement with a brand.

Importantly, engagement ideas must be carefully defined so they become "media-neutral," bigger than individual communications channels. As media options proliferate, ideas should remain consistent on everything from television, mobile phones, social media platforms, apps, video games, even in-store shelf talkers.

Connection Planning: Fusing Media with Ideas

Media planning should also be brought into the new era of "engagement ideas" and digital technology. First, proper definition of the engagement idea can transform media consumption from passive to active. Media itself becomes participatory. Creative can make any media vehicle "pop" and vice versa. Media placement should amplify creative. And Creative should turbo-charge individual media vehicles.

The artificial barriers between "traditional" ("mass") and "digital" (one-to-one) media planning should also be smashed. New digital platforms - social networks, corporate sites, micro sites, on-line communities, Facebook, Twitter, opinion-leader blogs - can be brought into alignment with how consumers have and always will make decisions regarding which brands earn their loyalty.

Summary: The Only Thing We Have to Fear...

It is a call to arms for an entire industry to stand up and reclaim the conceptual high group of marketing communications. Strategic and executional craftsmanship -- adherence to the ABCs of brand building -- will remain our lighthouse. As we courageously explore the shoals of a new digital landscape, we must not become stranded by anxiety and indecision. Timeless will be new again.