Episode One Hundred and Eighty Three: The Thing About Brand Advertising 

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

7:50pm on a Monday night after having arrived home from Sydney yesterday. I’ve realised I have two habits: one is always going to a farm within 30 days of arriving in Australia, which requires me to be really paranoid and tick a box (first, staying on the in-laws farm before going to Perth, this time, visiting a pumpkin patch for Halloween before Sydney), the second of which is travelling whenever the clocks change. It’s easier (ish) to travel when the clocks change in Spring – just make sure you go to a conference like SXSW and you’ll mostly get screwed by the time change. This time around, the clocks going back for autumn is just lost in the noise of jetlag.

1.0 Brand Advertising

If you’ve been following the last two episodes, you’ll have been watching my flashback to my not-so-long-ago advertising days after having seen the Samaritans Radar “campaign” / “app”.

Obviously this whole thing is still on my mind. There’s a bunch of things going on here:

Thing The First:

No one really knew what “digital” was going to be. It’s an achilles heel of advertising that part of the job is to get attention, and part of the deal with getting attention is to do New Things that have Never Been Done Before. In fact, they’re so much part of the deal of getting attention that such phrases become part of the landscape and used in briefs. Creative teams literally get asked to do something that’s Never Been Done Before.

The deal with capital-D digital is that it was a whole *bunch* of things that had never been done before. That’s the beauty of a two-way medium that is made of software – it’s pretty much infinitely malleable. There’s a reason why part of what excites people about digital is the idea of *inventing* new forms of media, and not just populating existing media.

With digital, there are new ways of doing things.

Thing The Second:

I used to think this was a problem, and now I’m not so sure anymore. In fact, I’m not even sure *where* the problem is anymore. I used to get excited when I’d pull on the thread of a brief with my teams and we’d get to the Root Problem and we’d come up with a Creative Way To Solve It. Sometimes, this would involve doing or making a new thing, and that’s invariably where the wheels would come off, especially at a place like Wieden. You see, the think about Wieden is that for the last thirty-odd years, it’s been an ad agency, and the thing that ad agencies do is, well, they make advertising. Their clients want to buy advertising. And by the time a client selects Wieden as an agency, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that the *answer to the business problem* involves advertising.

This is what eventually irritated me and led me to ask the Ultimate Question: are we solving clients’ business problems *full stop* or are we solving clients’ business problems *within the confines of advertising*. You can pretty much guess what the answer was.

The thing is – what would you expect an advertising agency to actually do? Not Advertising? Sure, they might *want* to do that, but why would a client want to do that? And sure, you might have a bunch of smart people in that building who can Think Shit Up, but by the time you get to a Creative Answer To A Business Problem that’s Not Advertising, suddenly you’ve run out of people you have a relationship with whom to sell it to. How can a CMO buy a non-advertising solution to a problem? That’s not within their remit. The typical situation is that a CMO is going to be in as silo’d an organisation as the agency trying to sell a solution. It’s not going to work. Not without a whole lot of work.

Thing The Third

Once you figure out that an advertising agency’s job is to make advertising – and to not *actually* solve the client’s problem, but to solve the client’s problem *through advertising*, things get a bit simpler. You can get rid of all the digital people who want to solve business problems with a large brush: they’re just going to get frustrated. Instead, you’re left with… something else? You’re left with things like Chrome Experiments, the Arcade Fire Thing, Streetview Stuff and, well, mostly films[1] as pointed out by Faris Yakob.

[1] What Happened To Interactive Digital Advertising? – Faris Yakob

Thing The Fourth

And then, you get to one of the big questions. What does “digital brand advertising” mean? Or, what does “digital branding” mean? On the one hand it’s entirely appropriate to say that something like Nike’s FuelBand *is* digital branding. It was – however successful or not it turned out to be – an attempt to marry what Nike meant into something that – kind of – served a user need. Shoes serve a user need. Just Do It is a way of, I guess, talking about that need. A FuelBand is a way of serving a user need – ish, if it’s been researched and demonstrated to exist! – to be active all the time. So yeah, I guess that product-and-service kind of makes sense.

Russell Davies has written a lot about this, and this is the nth time I’ve linked to his The Strategy Is Delivery[1, 2] piece now, and I guess I’m going to keep linking to it until everyone finally understands what he means.

I have no idea what digital brand advertising is. It’s weird. It feels like – given what we’ve seen is winning awards, it’s just regular brand films on the internet. You know. Volvo splits type stuff. Which means this is all well and good until…

[1] The Unit of Delivery
[2] The Strategy Is Delivery – London Strategy Unit

The Wheels Fall Off

Ben Thompson is a stupendously smart person who amongst other things has written about the idea of Peak Google[1], which is what happens when Google realises that it’s not very good at – tada – brand advertising. Ben says this is what brand advertising is:

“The idea behind brand advertising is to build “affinity” among potential customers. For example, a company like Unilever will spend a lot of money to promote Axe or Dove, but the intent is not to make you order deodorant via e-commerce. Rather, when you’re rushing through the supermarket and just need to grab something, the idea is that you’ll gravitate to the brand you have developed an affinity for. And once a customer has picked a brand, they’re loyal for years. That adds up to a lot of lifetime value, which is why consumer-packaged goods companies, telecom companies, car companies, etc. are among the biggest brand advertisers.”

This sort of thinking is pretty much in opposition to what the LSU and GDS folks are espousing (and the smart people will quickly be able to work out what the link is between the two). On the one hand, Google’s going to slowly and quickly (as things are wont to happen) fade away because it’s not going to get a bite out of the brand advertising pie. On the other hand *brand advertising itself* is getting a hard smacking because it turns out that (horrors) it might not actually be any good. Or, instead, that the real arms race isn’t in more-and-better brand advertising for FMCG-type companies, it’s in making better products.

What happens if or when a Unilever or a P&G adopts a strategy-is-delivery approach to its FMCG products? Will their rival be able to brand-advertise their way out, our will we suddenly be in a red queen race that leads to, well, better and better products, rather than more and better targeted advertising?

But then, this is the thing. Do you think a Unilever will be able to rework its product offering to make sense in a fully digital world? I mean, take a really boring thing like shampoo. You’d say that there wasn’t much more to be done with it, but that hasn’t stopped “innovation” happening in the shaving area (I literally can’t believe I just typed that) where you can now get shaving products on-demand? And sure, some of that stuff might be *really dumb* right now, but we’re talking about making lives easier and better.

To take GDS’ words and use them elsewhere: what does a toothpaste so good that people *prefer* to use it look like? Is it the kind that invests in packaging technology so it knows – internet fridge/bathroom or no – when it’s near to running out and puts an easy-to-cancel order in that ties into your existing subscription shopping Is it the kind that works so well with a toothbrush that it’s able to help you with preventative care? Is that all it needs to do? Are there other things it *could* do? Or, you know. You could just do something stupid and hook it up to a social network so you can see how many of your friends are dentists who also use it, *because that’s useful*. (I was being sarcastic).

A product so good that you prefer to use it, because it’s hooked into a digital ecosystem, because that’s what the world is, and what the world’s moving to. Where it’s *easier* and *better* to use this product, and you choose it for those reasons, not for brand affinity. What do things start looking like then?

[1] Peak Google

8:27pm. Send me notes. Especially all you advertising lot. I know you’re out there.

Dan