This piece first appeared in freshbusinessthinking.com
Does your company deserve to exist? “Of course!” I hear you answer. But does it really. Because these days most don’t.
There are exceptions of course. That busy little coffee place down the road from you? They deserve to exist. They’ve answered a need. They’ve set up shop in a specific locale where no one else was operating before, people wanted them, and now they’re ticking along nicely.
Apple too. They also deserve to exist. They didn’t really answer any needs of course – no one was crying out for colourful computers, closed music platforms, or tablets – they created them. As Steve Jobs delighted in reminding us, they were ahead of consumers, not behind.
Still, behind or ahead, both Apple and the local coffee shop are exactly what businesses should be: intrinsically worthwhile, enriching the world around them.
Unfortunately, this isn’t how most brands operate. Most brands are founded neither from a specific vision, nor from a desire to answer a need or a problem. Instead they arise from an exploitative mindset; trying to squeeze a profit from a market that’s already amply served.
Punters, of course, sense this. In fact, the famous 2014 study by Havas showing that the public wouldn’t care if 73% of brands ceased to exist is probably a fair estimate of the proportion of brands that are exploitative versus worthwhile.
This would be fine if they could just be avoided, but since they tend to play in highly competitive markets (the cost of unoriginality, alas), they also tend to advertise. Heavily.
Advertising, which should be a wonderful service informing you of things that will enrich your life, has become a battleground where pointless brands fight over Orwellian manipulations like “share of mind”, and try to shave percentage points of equity from their identikit competitors. Agency creativity, something that we instinctively cherish, is in fact often nothing more than a crutch for brands who can’t sell themselves on merit alone.
Little wonder that 84% of millennials “don’t trust advertising”. The more sophisticated it becomes, the more worthless the underlying brand must be.
So what about your brand? Which side of the divide do you sit on?
Here’s a simple test. If you were to make an ad that plainly stated who you are and what you do, with no embellishment or grandstanding, would it be enough to make people buy you?
If the answer is yes, then no doubt you’re doing just fine. You might have a unique product like Twitter, or an expansive vision like Red Bull. You may be synonymous with your whole category like Coke, or you may just be in the right place with the right service like the local coffee shop. One way or another though, you’re doing good.
But if you have any hesitation then welcome to the annoying 73%. You’re set for an uphill struggle with today’s consumer, who know a great authentic brand when they see one – and you’re not it.
Still, it’s not all doom and gloom, you do have options. Your first option is to throw money at the issue. If you’re lucky your brand may be the child of a global mega-corp, who have pretty solid track records getting brands to fly by brute force alone. The problem with this approach however, is that if you’re successful you essentially degrade the market. You have the capacity to sink other better brands who simply don’t have the arm twisting power at your disposal. So for the sake of everyone else, this approach isn’t recommended.
Your second option is much better. Simply make your business worthwhile.
This may sound frightfully ambitious – the business is what it is right? – but it’s actually no more complex than taking some of your advertising budget and creativity, flipping it around, and applying it inwards. Rather than creating campaigns, create tweaks and builds to your core business which help distinguish it from competitors fundamentally and intrinsically; and which in turn make it interesting and worthwhile.
This might mean expanding the remit of what your business does beyond your core product, but in line with your brand strategy. Think about when Airbnb started connecting people to have dinner together, or when Pedigree in New Zealand created a platform to help find lost dogs. These initiatives may have simply been funded by marketing, but to the outside world they appeared integral.
It also might mean tweaking your existing processes. Think about Hiut Denim, who highlight their craftsmanship by having every pair of jeans they produce signed by the person who made them.
This broad approach is starting to crystallise into a new advertising discipline called “basic”. Its arrival is timely, as it’s becoming plain to see that the advertising battleground of the future is not on TV, or on social, or on mobile – it’s in the fabric and behaviours of companies themselves. Those who are interesting and worthwhile will thrive; those who aren’t will gradually, and expensively, die. Make sure you’re on the right side of the divide.