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Whether you're read­ing a com­pelling ar­ti­cle, watch­ing an in­ter­est­ing video, or lis­ten­ing to a thought-pro­vok­ing pod­cast, what's the first thing that you do when you're done? You tell some­one. Since the in­cep­tion of media, an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of con­tent, no mat­ter the style, has re­sulted in shar­ing, whether through face-to-face con­ver­sa­tion, writ­ten com­mu­ni­ca­tion, or more com­monly in our mod­ern era, through so­cial media.




Boyd Wason,

Whose word are you more likely to be­lieve: a trusted friend or a ran­dom ar­ti­cle you found on a blog? When an opin­ion is avail­able from a known in­di­vid­ual, whether a friend or fam­ily mem­ber, trusted pro­fes­sional ex­pert, or work­place as­so­ciate, con­sumers are more likely to lis­ten. So­cial media is an ex­cep­tion­ally pow­er­ful tool, es­pe­cially when it comes to word of mouth mar­ket­ing. In Neilsen's study, 81% of users ad­mit­ted to be­ing in­flu­enced by so­cial media posts from their friends and fam­ily, while 78% are in­flu­enced by ven­dor posts. Sharable con­tent is a great as­set, but so is con­tent that hits home with your read­ers. By high­light­ing the facets of your busi­ness that set you apart, your cus­tomers, clients, and fans are much more likely to spread the word about what makes you spe­cial. Con­tent's promi­nence in the mod­ern mar­ket­ing land­scape is no se­cret. Peo­ple are much more likely to be­come en­gaged with a cre­ative story, pro­mo­tion, or ed­u­cated piece of writ­ing than they are with a stan­dard ban­ner ad. Con­sumers want to hear opin­ions from trusted re­sources, both good and bad, mak­ing it vi­tal that the con­tent you're cre­at­ing is worth talk­ing about.

The way a brand ex­presses it­self through its advertising is a very public stake in the ground. It’s how they want to be per­ceived. But in re­al­ity, it’s also what the cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ences that de­ter­mines what they be­lieve.

So what is the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the advertising, let alone the agen­cies that pro­duce the brand’s work? Far be it for me to as­sume the ins and outs of any com­pany’s in­ter­nal staff mo­ti­va­tion and train­ing prac­tices, but there’s no doubt that a brand’s public face via its advertising in­flu­ences the way the staff feel about the com­pany they work for. And be­yond how they feel, it has the po­ten­tial to sig­nif­i­cantly in­flu­ence the way they be­have.

Si­mon Sinek’s well-known TED Talk, ‘How Great Lead­ers In­spire Ac­tion’, es­pouses that the dif­fer­ence be­tween good com­pa­nies and great ones is be­ing crys­tal clear about why they ex­ist. Be­yond the ob­vi­ous of ‘what’ and ’how’ is un­der­stand­ing the deeper mo­ti­va­tion that gets staff ex­cited, con­tribut­ing, and deeply en­gaged in what the com­pany is try­ing to do be­yond purely selling stuff. It’s their sense of pur­pose that de­fines and dif­fer­en­ti­ates them. It’s their True North by which to judge strat­egy, ideas and ac­tions, whether they be in the peo­ple they hire, the prod­ucts and ser­vices they de­liver, or how they de­liver them.

We know that great advertising that is strongly linked to a brand’s pur­pose is go­ing to be far more ef­fec­tive in the long run. Mitre 10’s ‘DIY Is In Our DNA’ plat­form has un­doubt­edly in­flu­enced staff pride and pur­pose in what they do. They don’t just sell home im­prove­ment prod­ucts, they share the same urge as their fel­low Ki­wis to build and ren­o­vate stuff. And they do it in the down-to-Earth, no-non­sense style of the brand. As my client told me ten years ago when I started work­ing on the brand: “New Zealand’s not bloody Auck­land.”

Pak ’n Save’s Stickman has be­come a bit of a public favourite. But be­hind the ir­rev­er­ence is a brand prom­ise: “Ev­ery­thing we do, we do to save you money.” Do the staff feel cheap work­ing at New Zealand’s low­est food prices su­per­mar­ket? Not at all. They feel a sense of pride that they’re giv­ing Kiwi cus­tomers money back in their pock­ets, and do­ing it with a cheeky smile.

As part of Noel Leem­ing’s re­cent re­brand, the ‘Max­imise Your Ma­chine’ cam­paign cel­e­brated the sales staff as peo­ple pas­sion­ate about the joy of an elec­tri­cal ap­pli­ance and what it can do. Now a cus­tomer ser­vice prom­ise is al­ways at the mercy of the ex­pe­ri­ence on the day, but get­ting what you need is as crit­i­cal as what you pay for it—and in such a tight­mar­gin cat­e­gory, the advertising is a public bea­con for mo­ti­vat­ing the staff to de­liver en­thu­si­as­tic, em­pa­thetic and in­formed ser­vice. And Noels did its re­brand well; the advertising com­bined with an in­tense com­mit­ment to staff train­ing, store up­grades and a greater fo­cus on added ser­vices has de­liv­ered a healthy year-onyear busi­ness per­for­mance.

This month we launched a new net­work cam­paign for Voda­fone. The re­sponse from the public has been glow­ing. The ef­fect on the staff has been pal­pa­ble. Be­ing a ser­vice com­pany with 2.5 mil­lion cus­tomers means it’s a tough job to keep ev­ery­one happy. So staff, par­tic­u­larly in the front­line, need to be for­ti­fied by the brand they rep­re­sent to help them re­main re­silient in de­mand­ing cir­cum­stances. The brand be­lieves in the power of stay­ing con­nected and the cam­paign works at emo­tional and func­tional lev­els to keep the en­tire or­gan­i­sa­tion fo­cused on this pur­pose.

So do advertising agen­cies still de­serve a seat at the ta­ble to help com­pa­nies de­fine their pur­pose? Or have we be­come sim­ply a sup­plier ex­e­cut­ing a propo­si­tion we can’t help in­flu­ence? If any agency falls in the lat­ter cat­e­gory, they need to find a way to con­vince their client they have the skills and de­sire to play in this space. They need a hard-wired re­la­tion­ship with the exec and HR team, not just the mar­ket­ing team. They have to demon­strate how their ideas can trans­form the or­gan­i­sa­tion from the out­side in—not just mak­ing the staff feel good, but mo­ti­vat­ing them to put skin in the game.

Since brands wised up to the power of dig­i­tal and so­cial it has been very en vogue to talk about con­sumers ‘want­ing to have re­la­tion­ships with brands’ or want­ing to ‘en­gage in con­ver­sa­tions’. The way this is framed is in the lan­guage of en­thu­si­asm, but does this re­motely re­sem­ble the real world?

The re­sult of so many brands be­ing told that they have to be in the so­cial space is seem­ingly that all of a sud­den, any piece of mar­ket­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion has been la­belled as ‘con­tent’. In fact, the fo­cus for some brands to churn out the con­tent has seem­ingly re­placed the very real need for brands to de­velop a gen­uine and in­sight­ful cre­ative ed­i­to­rial strat­egy.

This cur­rent trend is suc­cinctly sum­marised by Steve Parker, strat­egy part­ner at M&C Saatchi: “Con­tent has be­come the an­swer to a ques­tion that no one is ask­ing.” With the ex­plo­sion of dig­i­tal plat­forms that has taken place in re­cent times, too many brands are guilty of ‘binge-cre­at­ing’ con­tent. In short, they are so caught up in the task of fill­ing an ever-grow­ing ar­ray of chan­nels that no one is stop­ping to ask the per­ti­nent ques­tion of whether they should.

This pro­lif­er­a­tion of con­tent is com­pletely at odds with con­sumers’ de­sires and be­hav­iours. In many ways, a lot of so­cial con­tent is closer to Tin­der than tra­di­tional advertising be­cause con­sumers are go­ing to give you a split sec­ond be­fore de­cid­ing to en­gage fur­ther or swipe past you.

Part of the is­sue lies in the bom­bard­ment of in­for­ma­tion that clients have to deal with, made even harder in the dig­i­tal and so­cial sphere where noth­ing is re­main­ing still for any length of time. They at­tend meet­ings or watch sem­i­nars where the likes of Face­book, Google and Twit­ter all urge them to ‘make sure they are cre­at­ing con­tent for their con­sumers’. And so, all to of­ten, that be­comes the brief. To cre­ate con­tent. The ques­tion of what would ac­tu­ally of­fer the con­sumers real value, or what would drive real world busi­ness re­sults for the brand, is of­ten all too con­spic­u­ous by its ab­sence. The word con­tent has be­come a ubiq­ui­tous catchall and there is a real con­cern over how many of the peo­ple who use it ac­tu­ally know what they are re­ally ask­ing for.

Mov­ing to a ‘con­tent first’ ap­proach fun­da­men­tally changes a num­ber of things. One of the most im­por­tant—and in my ex­pe­ri­ence, of­ten the least con­sid­ered—is what this means you are now com­pet­ing with for your con­sumers’ at­ten­tion.

Your dig­i­tal con­tent is not just com­pet­ing with your tra­di­tional busi­ness ri­vals. When you ven­ture into the most per­sonal of media chan­nels—some­one’s so­cial news­feed or some­one’s mo­bile—you have an en­tirely new com­peti­tor set. Bet­ter Call Saul, Clash of Clans, Game of Thrones, the Rugby World Cup, ev­ery­thing that is be­ing cre­ated by friends (rather than brands) … This is the dig­i­tal con­tent that con­sumers are seek­ing out and en­gag­ing with. This is what you are set­ting up your stall to com­pete with. When you un­der­stand just how big a task it is to cre­ate truly ‘thumb stop­ping’ con­tent when this is the com­peti­tor set, then you can start to un­der­stand the need to move (rapidly) away from an ap­proach of ‘al­ways on’ and in­stead to one of ‘cre­ative selec­tiv­ity’. In short, make sure you have some­thing damn well worth their time be­fore you open your mouth (and spend the money) to push it out into the world.

While ‘Zucker­berg’s Law’ (the con­cept that ev­ery 12 months con­sumers will dou­ble the vol­ume of con­tent that they share) still holds true, there is an ever-greater selec­tiv­ity be­ing ap­plied by con­sumers, and an ever-in­creas­ing vol­ume of brands, games, shows and films (not to men­tion all the real world friends that these so­cial plat­forms were de­signed to con­nect) that are vy­ing for those shares and that at­ten­tion. It is also cru­cial to note, that while con­sumer con­tent con­sump­tion is in­creas­ing, the vol­ume of con­tent be­ing cre­ated is in­creas­ing about 100 times faster. With these vol­umes, the re­al­ity is huge amounts of con­tent have lit­tle ex­po­sure and no im­pact.

Now, this is not to say that con­tent can­not pro­vide a huge com­mer­cial op­por­tu­nity for brands. As Google UK’s head of mar­ket­ing, Nishma Robb, points out, fash­ion/beauty blog­ger Zoella alone has more sub­scribers than the com­bined cir­cu­la­tions of the top five UK women’s mag­a­zines. “We see huge amounts of branded con­tent, and brands have an op­por­tu­nity to break be­yond the re­stric­tions of the com­mis­sion­ing editor,” she says. How­ever, mar­keters must be will­ing to col­lab­o­rate and re­lin­quish more con­trol to truly em­brace this. They must be con­sumer-cen­tric and cre­ate things that of­fer gen­uine value rather than just oc­cu­py­ing space with mar­ket­ing mes­sages for the sake of it. This ap­proach of­fers no cut through and no chance of be­ing re­mem­bered.

Brands who have the courage to take a deep breath and move away from the over pop­u­lated con­tent cal­en­dar for long enough to cre­ate some­thing gen­uinely de­serv­ing of con­sumers’ pre­cious time will be the ones who emerge from the era of con­tent mar­ket­ing ahead. As mar­keters, it is our job to refuse to let brands fall into bad habits or be kow­towed by bad/ in­ef­fec­tive KPIs. Dig­i­tal media is an enor­mously pow­er­ful tool at driv­ing real world ben­e­fits for a brand. We just can­not for­get that the best way to do that is through of­fer­ing the con­sumer some­thing mean­ing­ful along the way.

As mar­keters, our job is get­ting peo­ple to do some­thing, whether it’s buy our prod­uct, visit our store or share their ex­pe­ri­ence af­ter­wards. We’re in the busi­ness of get­ting peo­ple to do things they aren’t al­ready do­ing, or get­ting them to do those things more of­ten.

It’s why, when we look at our rev­enue tar­gets or mar­ket share ob­jec­tives, we have to think about what those mean in terms of what we want au­di­ences to do. What’s the be­hav­iour that we need to change? Do we want ex­ist­ing cus­tomers to ‘grad­u­ate’ to the pre­mium of­fer? In­crease us­age fre­quency? In­crease bas­ket size? But if suc­cess ul­ti­mately comes down to what peo­ple do, why are so many mar­keters still fo­cused on what peo­ple think? Why is so much im­por­tance placed in met­rics like key mes­sage take­out or con­sid­er­a­tion? Es­sen­tially, it comes down to the stay­ing power of neo­clas­si­cal eco­nomic the­ory; the belief that con­sumers will ul­ti­mately make ra­tio­nal de­ci­sions to max­imise out­comes. In other words, give your au­di­ence a bet­ter rea­son to act and they will.

How­ever, the fun­da­men­tal flaw of Homo Eco­nomi­cus is that it de­pends on peo­ple be­ing ra­tio­nal ac­tors. The truth is, we aren’t. Break­throughs in neu­ro­science and psy­chol­ogy are prov­ing hu­man be­hav­iour is far more de­pen­dent on in­stinct and emo­tion. Some psy­chol­o­gists sug­gest that up­wards of 90 per­cent of our ac­tions are emo­tion­ally driven. In fact, we of­ten use that log­i­cal part of our brains to just post-ra­tio­nalise the emo­tional de­ci­sions we’ve al­ready made. But this doesn’t mean that your au­di­ence’s be­hav­iour is ran­dom. In his book Pre­dictably Ir­ra­tional, the renowned be­havioural economist Dan Ariely writes ex­ten­sively about the ways in which peo­ple’s be­hav­iour typ­i­cally fol­lows cer­tain “rules” or mod­els. By un­der­stand­ing them, and the un­con­scious bi­ases that steer de­ci­sion­mak­ing, we can make ad­just­ments to our au­di­ence’s en­vi­ron­ment, or their choice ar­chi­tec­ture, to make cer­tain be­hav­iours more at­trac­tive to that in­stinc­tive emo­tional part of the brain. It’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween telling peo­ple to take a par­tic­u­lar path and in­creas­ing that path’s at­trac­tive­ness by sprin­kling it with bread­crumbs.

While this knowl­edge has been slowly mak­ing its way out­side the walls of academia, its po­ten­tial is barely be­ing tapped. Con­cepts like hy­per­bolic dis­count­ing and fram­ing are find­ing their way into briefs and cre­ative pre­sen­ta­tions, but more of­ten than not, they are prop­ping up the same com­mu­ni­ca­tions’ re­sponses we’ve seen for years. There’s no deny­ing that be­havioural science can make advertising work bet­ter, but its true power lies in the nudge, not the mes­sage. Con­sider this: back in 2011 the area of Wool­wich was torn apart by the Lon­don ri­ots. Anti-so­cial be­hav­iour and van­dal­ism were ram­pant and the com­mu­nity needed a so­lu­tion. In­stead of run­ning a com­mu­ni­ca­tions cam­paign, hop­ing to change the be­hav­iour of would-be-van­dals by chang­ing their at­ti­tudes first, they de­cided to tar­get the prob­lem be­hav­iours di­rectly. Armed with a study ex­plain­ing how im­ages of ba­bies’ have a calm­ing ef­fect on men, a team of artists was hired to paint the faces of lo­cal chil­dren on shop front se­cu­rity shut­ters. At night, in­stead of a high street boarded up with me­tal bar­ri­ers, peo­ple found a mas­sive gallery of smil­ing ba­bies. At the end of the first year, lo­cal po­lice re­ported an 18 per­cent re­duc­tion in anti-so­cial be­hav­iour, which they at­trib­uted to the paint­ings.

True nudges aren’t cam­paigns. They aren’t even mes­sages. Some­times nudges are as sim­ple as the smil­ing face of a baby.

It could be suc­cess­fully ar­gued that the great­est science fic­tion films of our time all share a com­mon, scary abil­ity to ac­cu­rately pre­dict con­sumer be­hav­iour and mar­ket­ing trends. From CCTV to Skype, head­phones to driver­less cars, all were fore­shad­owed by the dark, geeky arts of sci-fi writ­ing. In fact, a com­pany in Cal­i­for­nia has just started selling hov­er­boards, like those seen in Back to the Fu­ture 2. Which is dou­bly ac­cu­rate as a pre­dic­tion, be­cause the year Marty McFly trav­els to in the fu­ture was 2015.

But one of my favourite pre­dic­tions is that of Mi­nor­ity Re­port around per­son­alised com­mu­ni­ca­tion. There’s a great scene where our pro­tag­o­nist John An­der­ton walks through a mall be­ing bom­barded with ads com­mu­ni­cat­ing di­rectly with him. “Hey John An­der­ton, you could use a Guin­ness right about now”, “Get away John An­der­ton, for­get your wor­ries”, “John An­der­ton, take the road less trav­elled with Lexus”. They im­plore, their voices cut­ting over each other in a dis­con­cert­ing bab­ble.

This is a great char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion of where mar­ket­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion is go­ing cur­rently un­der the data-driven mar­ket­ing par­a­digm. En­abled by tech­nol­ogy, mar­keters are now able to ef­fec­tively com­mu­ni­cate di­rectly with in­di­vid­u­als in a very tai­lored way. We now have the abil­ity to know what each cus­tomer buys, what they browse, the web pages the visit, where they are and who they are in very spe­cific de­tail. And that al­lows us to be much bet­ter at talk­ing with them in a way that ac­tu­ally has in­di­vid­ual mean­ing and rel­e­vance. A great ex­am­ple of this is Macy’s in the US, which uses data on cus­tomers col­lected via its loy­alty pro­gramme to de­velop over 500,000 dif­fer­ent ver­sions of its quar­terly cat­a­logue, each fo­cus­ing on dif­fer­ent as­pects of its range and tai­lored con­tent, depend­ing on what the cus­tomer has shown an in­ter­est in via their shop­ping ac­tiv­i­ties.

All of which is great stuff, right? By giv­ing peo­ple more tai­lored in­ter­ac­tion, we en­hance re­la­tion­ships, im­prove prod­uct and ser­vice of­fer­ings and drive bet­ter busi­ness out­comes. Both the con­sumer and the busi­ness win, and mar­ket­ing does what it’s meant to do by cre­at­ing a mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial value ex­change.

But while data-driven mar­ket­ing def­i­nitely helps busi­nesses tai­lor the de­liv­ery of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, of­fers and ex­pe­ri­ence, there is some­thing very con­cen­tric in this 1:1 think­ing that’s worth con­sid­er­ing in how we weight mar­ket­ing ac­tiv­ity to­wards this space.

With this model, we take a cus­tomer who has a re­la­tion­ship with a brand and we re­fine and re­fine our of­fer to them to make in­cre­men­tal gains in the re­turns we gen­er­ate from them. And while we im­prove their in­di­vid­ual ex­pe­ri­ence of us, there lies a nag­ging wider ques­tion that mar­ket­ing needs to bear in mind, as to how the cus­tomer ar­rived at our door in the first place—and how we keep more of them com­ing.

There is now a huge, un­de­ni­able body of em­pir­i­cal ev­i­dence to sup­port the no­tion that much of a brand’s suc­cess in be­ing cho­sen in the first place comes down to the salience that brands cre­ate in the mar­ket; that dif­fi­cult to de­fine sense of ‘big­ness’ and ‘right­ness’ about a brand. The feel­ing that the brand re­ally owns the core cat­e­gory at­tributes peo­ple are look­ing for, and that it can pro­ject this us­ing clear and dis­tinc­tive brand as­sets. If you look at the ev­i­dence gath­ered by lead­ing mar­ket­ing aca­demics An­drew Ehren­berg and By­ron Sharp over a huge amount of very ro­bust stud­ies, it is this dis­tinc­tive big­ness that ul­ti­mately cre­ates brand suc­cess.

And herein lies the big ques­tion: how do you cre­ate this sense of salience in a brand via a data-driven mar­ket­ing route? Yes, we can ef­fec­tively tar­get cur­rent users with in­creas­ingly tai­lored mes­sag­ing, but can you build that sense of big­ness and right­ness for the world more gen­er­ally?

Prob­a­bly not, at least not ef­fi­ciently and ef­fec­tively. For brands to truly achieve the sort of uni­ver­sal un­der­stand­ing and cat­e­gory con­nect­ed­ness of a Nike or an Ap­ple, we still need a big, shared idea to con­nect with. We, as hu­mans, re­spond well to sto­ries and nar­ra­tives as a way of im­part­ing in­for­ma­tion. In fact, it’s the foun­da­tion of how we learn and how our cog­ni­tive pro­cesses work to store facts. And we are also herd an­i­mals so we re­spond to shared nar­ra­tives and ideas best of all. We want to know we are mak­ing choices that align with those of oth­ers who we want to be like.

And this is where data-driven mar­ket­ing falls a lit­tle short, and where the mas­sive pen­du­lum swing of mod­ern mar­ket­ing away from brand build­ing has po­ten­tial to cre­ate prob­lems for busi­ness. It has a mas­sive role to play in re­fin­ing the ex­e­cu­tion of an idea for a spe­cific in­di­vid­ual, but it shouldn’t be thought of as a re­place­ment for the de­vel­op­ment of story; of the shared un­der­stand­ing of a brand.

In­ter­est­ingly, the cur­rent no­tion is to think mass mar­ket­ing de­vices, such as the ‘big brand cam­paign’, as a sort of anachro­nism from the age where we sim­ply weren’t smart enough to com­mu­ni­cate di­rectly with peo­ple in­di­vid­u­ally. But they prob­a­bly de­liv­ered us much more than that. There lies, in their vast reach and ubiq­uity, the cre­ation of a shared un­der­stand­ing of story that may well have de­liv­ered brands more than we ever knew.

The ques­tion we should be con­sid­er­ing is how we recre­ate some of this for our more frac­tured dig­i­tal age.

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