Today brands are everywhere. A world without them is impossible to imagine. From the moment we wake up to the time we go to sleep, everything we wear, use, eat, or drink is branded: the Armani suit he puts on in the morning, the Starbucks coffee she drinks on the journey to work in her BMW, our smartphones, computers, even our toilet paper. For companies, brands are multibillion-dollar assets with the potential to make or break a business.
But chaos has erupted in the communications industry, and the future of those assets hangs in the balance.
The digital revolution has intensified the clash between the top-down and bottom-up brand-building models: the former is fueled by clarity of message, which is articulated by the manufacturer; the latter is unpredictable, on the street, of and for the people. Advertisers and marketers need not only be fluent in both but also to find new ways to reconcile the two. Marketers must permit consumers to participate with brands while retaining the ability to manage the message and dialog.
Top down versus bottom up communications
For years brands were built using a top-down communications model that spread a manufacturer's message to mass audiences. Tightly controlled messages were created in company boardrooms and pumped out across print, radio, and TV to drive awareness. Brands developed clear, concise messages that viewers did not have to actively digest; they could passively receive and understand the information. Jingles, commercials, and brand messages quickly permeated the minds of children and adults alike.
Handled incorrectly, the top-down communication model can be aggressive, thrusting, and unidirectional. It's no accident that marketing professionals often describe it in military language: capturing market share, penetrating the customer base, defeating competitors. It can be declarative, propagandistic, uninvolving. But in its best moments it can also encapsulate a belief, a set of values, even a religion. Nike's "Just do it" slogan expresses a spirit cherished by those who come into contact with the organization. These three words, created by Wieden + Kennedy more than 25 years ago, have weathered decades of change and the explosion of digital technology to take root across the world. No one doubts that "Just do it" has powered Nike to become the multibillion-dollar corporation it is today. This is what a brand can achieve when top-down messages are conceptually clear and fueled by a deep understanding of consumers' motivations. This is what makes the model timeless.
But businesses have also long recognized the need to foster one-on-one engagement with consumers--the so-called bottom-up approach. For instance, in the 1950s marketers tried to talk directly to kids through entertaining content on the back of cereal boxes or by running competitions that required children to save a manufacturer's bottle caps. In today's digital world, where consumers have myriad opportunities to interact with brands through technology and social media, bottom-up has become an imperative.
The advertising industry is in the midst of a paradigm shift. Technology has now altered the balance of power between brands and consumers, with consumers actively wresting control.. The success or failure of an advertising message is no longer controlled by how many people it reaches but by how well it engages people to reinforce loyalty to a brand.
No one wants to be a passive receiver of information; no one wants to be interrupted by one-way advertising or talked down to by advertisers. Rather, consumers demand commercials that are as involving as any other entertainment option. Consumers want to participate, but this must never become an obligation; a brand that makes its audience work too hard for entertainment is not sustainable. The key is in evoking a desired behavioral response by creating material so engaging consumers can't help but want to become part of it.
Bottom-up advertising is colliding head-on with its top-down predecessor--and the end goal is not exposure or chasing eyeballs but developing relationships with empowered consumers to engender loyalty and brand advocacy. At its core this approach is multidirectional and interactive. It can be a one-on-one dialog between brand and consumer; it can be intense expressions of dissatisfaction; it can be intimate whispers of delight. This approach begins organically, is rooted in passion, and relies on word of mouth: people are the medium. They can spread the message in unexpected ways.
As a result consumers can, and will, hijack brands. They are prepared to cocreate messages and push them to evolve over time so advertising becomes of the people, for the people. This is a scary thought for many brands, which have been pulling the levers for decades. But Cadbury's experience is testament to the awesome power that a brand can release if it is willing to loosen its grip and allow consumers to take a degree of control over creative messages.
The company's "eyebrows campaign" in the United Kingdom started in 2009 with a simple one-minute TV commercial that showed two kids breaking into a wiggling "eyebrow dance" that was perfectly in time with a funky backtrack blasting from a digital watch. The spot was an exuberant expression of Cadbury's longtime "producers of joy" position, but it had no conventional product shot or other branding device. The only way consumers knew it was a Cadbury's commercial was through a closing end line, "a glass and a half full of joy," a spin on the product's well-known story of having a "glass and a half of milk" among its ingredients. The film went viral, racking up four million views within the first three weeks. People submitted about 6,000 remixes; American rapper Kanye West promoted the video on his blog; the celebrity gossip blogger Perez Hilton, known for his cattiness, described it as supercool; the multitalented English comedian, actor, writer, journalist, film director, and serial tweeter Stephen Fry described it as "Wrong. Wrong. Yet oddly right. While Cadbury was responsible for the initial framing of the message, the rest of the world ran with it. Consumers interacted with the message, made it their own and deepened connection to the brand.
Brave new marketing world
Digital technology and omnipresent data sourcing has also transformed the commercial landscape and reconfigured how brands are able to connect with consumers. "Big data," the algorithmic aggregation of multiple data points from different platforms into predictive behavioral modeling, has enhanced our ability to target with great precision - for example, to runners who also like heavy metal music or theater aficionados who love European travel. Ultra precise targeting could allow real time delivery of discounts to consumers as they pass through specific points on their shopper journey. By "pushing" the most appropriate offer for a given sales opportunity, marketers overthrow conventional marketing.
This new power has, in turn, made media buying and planning sexy again, while unhelpfully deemphasizing creativity. Thus quantitative rationalism might appear to compete with ideation and inspiration as drivers of behavior change. In truth, there must be room for both. Data informs, and can increasingly predict, the decisions consumers make along their paths to purchase. But statistics don't exist in a vaccum. The underlying concepts are the connective tissue that brings these tactics together into a cohesive selling idea.
The communications industry is at an exciting crossroad, with two concurrent models: the timeless top-down approach and the morphing, shape-shifting bottom-up model. Advertisers and marketers need not only be fluent in both but also to find new ways to reconcile the two. This divide is often exacerbated by intellectual and culture gaps. For example, digital agencies tend to celebrate entrepreneurialism and technology-led invention. Experimentation and design are obsessions, traits of a workforce with honed analytic and technical skills. On the other hand, advertising agencies tend to nurture conceptual precision and communication of abstract ideas.
It's not about digital marketing. It's about marketing in a digital world. We must create opportunities for consumers to participate with brands without surrendering the ability to manage the message and what people say about their products.
Consumer engagement is more critical than ever before. Engagement is a long-term connection that blossoms over time. It is a behavioral commitment between two parties--the brand and consumer--to remain together and withstand challenges over time. It must be dynamic, capable of responding to change and a variety of different needs but also consistent. Engaging consumers is not achieved by discrete messages aimed at holding their attention. It is a lifelong relationship.
New technology presents a breathtaking, yet overwhelming, array of options to marketers, who have become intoxicated by the sheer scope of what's possible. So often they take the view that doing something is at least better than doing nothing--How many times have we heard, "Let's create an app" without first asking why? Marketers need to wield technology to build brand equity and strengthen consumer loyalty. Too often technology does neither.
Brand stewards should avoid the temptation to deploy technology in a manner that dilutes long-term equity in exchange for a short-term sales fix. In 2013 several McDonald's franchises in Spain took advantage of their powerful wi-fi network signal to hijack customers who were eating in nearby establishments. By changing their signal name into a message--for example, "Free drink with your McMenu," or "Come eat with us and have a sundae on the house"--the McDonald's franchises lured people into their restaurants. The local stunt was clever and generated a burst of incremental sales. But the fast-food chain missed an opportunity to combine hard-hitting discounts with reminders of why people love McDonald's--that is, its reputation for quality food and family friendliness.
Compare that with the inspiration of "Project Re: Brief," rolled out jointly in 2013 by Google and Coca-Cola. The breakthrough initiative captures the spirit of the famous "Hilltop" advertisement from the early '70s in which all colors of humanity bonded on a mountain with a Coke. Internet users can record a message and send it with a Coca-Cola to someone on the other side of the world at a specially designed vending machine. And the receivers can then send a thank-you message back to the sender. Technology, properly deployed, can strengthen engagement between people and between consumers and brands.
This article has been excepted from my book, "Twitter Is Not a Strategy: Rediscovering the Art of Brand Marketing," to be published in November, 2014, by Palgrave Macmillan.