This piece first appeared in Campaign.
Type Coca-Cola into Google and you get 160 million results. Being extremely charitable, Coke probably didn’t create more than 1% of that information, meaning that the genuine life of the brand exists entire out of its hands. As Jeff Bezos said, your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room, meaning that if that other 99% of information floating around about you is positive, the 1% that you control – your advertising – might be redundant.
Now a new piece of research from Basic Arts has revealed for the first time that this understanding is flourishing amongst the general public, calling into question the way businesses choose to build their brands, and the future of the advertising industry that supports them.
Out of a nationally representative cross section of UK 18-35 year olds, only 5% believed that it was necessary for “good brands” to spend money on advertising in order to become successful, since the plethora of impartial information now available online would see the cream rise to the top. Advertising messages which the brand itself controls – including not only traditional “ads”, but also brand-owned social and other modern approaches – were rated as the least influential form of information for people when forming their opinions, whilst the most influential was seen as “journalism, reviews, news, and other impartial coverage”, outstripping even the opinions of friends which placed second.
This news begs the question of how a brand can seek to control that swell of information that it doesn’t control. Well, the implication is clear right? A brand – in news which shouldn’t really be news at all – has to be actually good to succeed in todays market; to provide genuine value not already provided amply elsewhere. This is easy to understand, since we all have brands who we admire for non-advertising-driven reasons. Indeed there is even growing collective of brands such as Lush, Monster, and GoPro who operate a “no advertising” policy as a matter of course. What all these brands share is a clear value-provision mindset, coupled with internal creativity and differentiation.
Now if this sounds obvious it shouldn’t, because it certainly isn’t obvious to the public. When exploring whether they believed today’s brands capable of succeeding in this environment, they were roundly pessimistic.
Only 2% believe most brands to be driven by a desire to provide value to the world, instead seeing them as motivated purely by value extraction. The difficulty of this mindset – as anyone who’s had to contend with a simplistic ROMI model will know – is that it severely hampers the ability to make bold choices and do anything which doesn’t have mountains of precedent. This plays into another reservation, with 69% believing that the majority of brands bring no unique value to the world, and with an even higher number – 79% – thinking that most don’t need to exist as a result. As a damning final statement, 69% went so far as to label most brands simply as “pointless”.
So where does this leave brands and advertising in general? Respondents made that very clear, revealing driving factor which makes them admire the brands they do being simply, “what I know about what they do”. They also displayed a strong preference towards brands who display transparency, with 4 times as many believing this to be important as unimportant. What this means is that the canvas to which commercial creativity needs to be applied has shifted – away from media, and into the heart of businesses themselves.
We could summarise this as brands being implored to focus on making interesting businesses, instead of interesting advertising. The admired brands people referenced in the research all shared this core characteristic – what the company did was at its heart more interesting and creative than what their agencies did… an inversion of what we’ve come to expect in the traditional model. Named examples included usual suspects such as Apple and Google, along with smaller brands such as Patagonia, Vans, and Monki; however it was telling that the most named brand of all in the survey was actually Lush – the aforementioned “anti-advertising” cosmetics company.
The challenging but exciting news for the brands themselves is that the creative onus has now been heavily shifted back on to them, and away from their agencies. How they choose to handle this is open for debate, but we might seen an explosion of internal creative directors (an approach taken by brands such as Airbnb), or even a spread of “brand thinkers” throughout the business outside of the traditional silo of the marketing department.
As for agencies, the challenge is a little more severe. As people’s tastes evolve away from an appetite for insightful and clever arguments for products to a more “just the facts ma’am” approach, it would seem that their skills will be left without a home. However the fact remains that clear creative thinking still often comes best from an outside source, regardless of the medium to which it is applied. Therefore this doesn’t have to represent the death of advertising; instead it can represent the birth of a new discipline, a discipline of applying the same thinking to the internal structure of clients, rather than transient bits of media. This “basic”, foundational, elemental approach can yield a renaissance for agencies – and give them a mission to be proud of as well.