It’s July, which means aside from the occasional hot spell we marketers are about to be deluged by an ocean of talks, tweets and treatises on the importance of creativity and her bespectacled, more reserved brother, innovation.
Blame Cannes. Last week, 13,000 marketers descended on the French Riviera to have the overriding importance of all things creative drummed into them. If proof was needed that Cannes Lions was all about the C word, we need only consult last week’s social media analytics. Apparently, more than half of the messages emanating from the event mentioned either creativity or innovation.
But there’s more than just the annual French maritime party to persuade marketers that it’s all about creativity. The digital revolution apparent across our industry has many implications and one of them is to make creativity a more appealing focus for many marketers. In years gone by, a brand manager had to surmount several distinct obstacles to get to a point where they would interact with creative teams and partake in the creative end of the marketing conveyor belt. Today, thanks to ‘real-time marketing’ and the surfeit of digital communication platforms that marketers personally manage, many view themselves as being directly responsible for the creative act.
Back in the day when marketers realized that their main challenges revolved around market research, brand positioning, product strategy and pricing there was a much clearer awareness that creatives were a separate species. Few made the mistake of thinking they were the creative ones. But today, many marketers believe that their main challenge is content marketing and traditional strategic work has been replaced with a more abject emphasis on creativity uber alles.
That’s troubling because in my experience most marketers are hopeless at creative work. I say experience not because I claim any personal creative talent (I have none) but because I have worked for several large, creative businesses at the height of fashion and luxury. It’s difficult not to sound like a braggart in that last sentence but it’s true. I worked for several companies famed for their creative prowess and the irony was that I, and the marketers I worked with at these brands, never thought for a second we were creative in any way. We knew our place – which was at the analytical and strategic end of the process that then fed the creative teams.
As this article in Entrepreneur reminds us, plenty of brands try to re-set the market’s understanding of their brand and are well and truly spanked for doing so. If rebranding is the hot topic of conversation at your place right now, here’s 10 reasons to leave things as they are:
- You don’t need to change – yes, I know it seems obvious…but it needs saying, because there are still brands that rebrand for reasons that escape everyone who missed the slidedeck. In many cases, the decision is taken not because the brand needs to change but because there’s been a change in role or people internally are bored with the brand they are responsible for. Neither reason flies with consumers of course – and they quickly voice a view for things to revert to how they were.
- You’re guessing what change is needed – too many brands come to believe that any change signals refreshment and therefore any change will do. So they make changes to their brand that mean something to them or that they feel comfortable with, or that the agency has talked them into, but that are neither as significant nor as interesting as the brand itself believes they will be. The fact is that unless you are rebranding for a reason and to achieve a specific goal, change for its own sake achieves nothing good.
- The strategy is wrong – a rebrand that misreads the market can do a lot of damage. Read the assumptions and market analysis around your rebrand carefully. Ask for proof, look carefully at the opportunities, evaluate the need for change (and the nature of the change required) from the point of view of the consumer. Working with the right consulting or agency partner is vital. You need them to be objective, well versed in your sector dynamics and committed to getting you results not just taking you through their process. As Galen DeYoung points out, “Marketers and corporate executives get consumed with what they would ultimately like the company to be versus the position it can reasonably attain in the marketplace at the present time: i.e., the next permissible step in the company’s evolution.” I love that word ‘permissible’. It’s a potent reminder that the power to change the brand rests with different people than those who must accept the new brand.
In this fast-changing world, companies cannot afford the luxury of a brand positioning that ties them down to a narrow set of features and benefits. What they need is the ability to quickly take advantage of new opportunities when they emerge and shift away from old business models when they are no longer relevant. They need branding to support their need for speed.
To accommodate this business imperative, brand positioning has to offer a broader perspective with fewer constraints. Narrow positioning won’t work for companies that have to reinvent themselves over and over again.
That’s why you see companies taking a broader perspective, associating themselves with higher-order values rather than what-we-do detail. One approach is to talk about brand purpose, a more general and flexible concept that seeks to establish differentiation by identifying the unique benefit that the company brings to the world. This approach doesn’t just work for companies like Patagonia or Ben & Jerry’s —it works for companies like LinkedIn too, which is guided by its true north vision “To create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce.”
But whether companies choose to focus on their purpose or simply develop a more general brand statement, there’s still a branding gap—the focus and clarity and fact-based differentiation that would be covered by a: “In a market characterized by (consumer need), only (brand) can (meet that need) by (how it meets the need) giving consumers (the benefit)” type statement.
One way to bring back specificity is to inject branding into the products and services that the company offers. By developing a brand architecture where products and services are positioned against tangible features and benefits, companies can bring back brand focus and detail as they talk about how they serve particular market needs.
Outside-in change is prompted by shifts beyond the immediate control of the brand. Those prompts could be competitive, reputational or sectoral. They could manifest in symptoms as varied as a drop in credibility, a slump in market share or a shift in profitability within a sector as a whole. Whatever the signal, these declines prompt a brand to make sometimes radical changes in a quest to re-set how it is valued by consumers and respected by rivals.
One or more of four outs usually apply:
- You have been outpaced – you’re not keeping with up the changes in consumer buying patterns, expectations and/or attitudes. You need to shorten your reaction and/or development times or risk being left behind.
- You have been outsmarted – your competitors have done something clever – an innovation or an improvement – that has completely changed how they compete. Consumers have welcomed the change. Now you must react.
- You have been outshone – someone else has stolen the eye of buyers, and they’ve shifted their attention and their wallets. Chances are your profile and/or your story, or rather the lack of them, are to blame. You need to find new ways to be interesting or risk further relegation.
- You have outraged – you did something stupid or failed to do something right, and now people are not happy with you. You need to do two things simultaneously: arrest the public damage; and address the internal controls that allowed whatever happened to happen.
In any of these circumstances, the brand is primarily looking for ways to stem losses and then to regroup and counter-attack. Both steps are important.
It’s critical to understand how you got into the position you are in. The overarching question is brutally direct, but critically important: “Why and where have we failed?” Management generally squirm at history lessons I’ve found – afraid they’ll turn into a witch-hunt – but unless the reasons for your decline are known and the pace of decline understood, it’s very difficult to know what to address in the marketplace and the speed at which that change must occur. If you don’t know, you will find yourselves simply throwing tactics at your competitors in increasingly desperate attempts to slow the damage.
I enjoy seeing people poke business models, but it’s important that when you look to disrupt a business that you do so without assumptions. The call by Marc Ruxin of Universal McCann to rethink the creative department of ad agencies is a great idea but my sense is that his suggestions still assume the battle is for attention, and that winning that attention and holding it via great content, well presented, is critical to achieving consumer preference.
The noise preventing that, he says, is formidable. Brands are trying to get their messages heard and acted upon in an environment of 150 million tweets a day, 700 billion minutes a month on Facebook, 300 million global players of Zynga games, 200 million Daily Deal subscribers…
I’m far from convinced though that attention and preference are a linear progression. And I think we need to insert at least three further filters into that zig-zag of decision making: notice, consider and purchase. You may gain a consumer’s attention momentarily, but until they choose to escalate that attention and actually take notice of you, there’s no way they’re going to consider you, never mind prefer you – and even then, they may not buy.
It seems to me Mr. Ruxin is still trying to run an interruption model based on see, want, get. I feel he still thinks content is the make or break, and he’s now looking to adapt that model to fit the new channels that consumers now occupy their time with. That doesn’t so much require a rethink of the creative department as it requires the creative and media departments to rethink their approach and to adopt new skills. Not quite the same thing.
In his article, the author suggests: “It is a new world: Brands + Skillfully Placed Media Investments + The Right Platforms + The Right Partner + The Right Offer = Creative Success” Two things about that. I don’t think that’s a new world at all. That equation doesn’t look any different from the way it looked when I started in advertising – it’s just that the media, platforms and partners themselves have changed. And there’s no reason to believe that ‘Creative Success’ is the result anyone should be seeking anyway. That’s an agency metric, not a commercial one.