The lockdown has magnified advertising challenges and accelerated trends. It should also be reinforcing timeless wisdom. The two most important principles in advertising are that your audience needs to notice your advertising and know who it's for. This sounds bloody obvious, but it's amazing how often they're now overlooked. Yet stronger branding is the simplest improvement most advertisers could make to boost effectiveness.
Advertising works best when it's distinctive, ie unlike anything else, because (see above) this helps more people both notice it and remember who it's for. Brand campaigns are particularly powerful when consistently distinctive; when the same unique elements continue across executions, channels and years. This is well documented, but it's also pretty obvious.
Perhaps some brand marketers and agencies find this simple, common-sense approach to be too lazy, or just too boring, because consistent distinctiveness has declined. Many now change their campaigns like underwear. That includes the execution, creative concept, and brand strategy. Even one-off campaigns aren't as distinctive as they should be. Too often, unless the audience scrutinises that logo or packshot, it's hard to separate one brand's communications from another.
Covid-19 has taken this to ridiculous new levels. Check out the sad compilation video of recent US advertising. The same ideas, messages, images, and even words and music, have been employed by what should be a diverse range of businesses, categories and brands.
So here's one theory on why this is happening: There's too much information, and we're all reading the same stuff.
Anything anyone thinks about marketing and advertising is available at the touch of a button. It's a never-ending stream of facts, opinions and counter-opinions. We can see all the best advertising from anywhere in the world as soon as it hits its market. Algorithms and peers drive us to the same popular content. And there's a competitive pressure on each of us to absorb it all. Have you read this? Have you seen what's-his-face's latest article, video, Ted Talk or LinkedIn post?
Lockdown has made it worse. We're devouring and sharing the same rushed case studies, opinion pieces and new philosophies. Unlike a well-considered book, little of it has much depth, but we're responding regardless. Brands that boldly stood for status, ambition or carefree fun seem to have relaunched and aligned with some kind of universal socialist philosophy. Like some friend that's just returned from an alternative meditation retreat and you don't know who they are anymore - you just know you don't want to be having a beer with them until they snap out of it.
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Couple that with an almost perverse desire to quickly declare an existing approach flawed, and replace it with a new one. The kind of theories that once took decades to develop, refine, challenge and replace, can now complete their entire life cycle in months. But when it comes to brand advertising, should we be obsessing over what's "right", or pursuing "interesting and distinctive" and anything that helps us get there?
I've read many books that have directly influenced the way I've approached advertising; Lateral Thinking and the Six Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Ries and Trout, Mindhunter by John Douglas, Focus by Al and Laura Ries, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, Freakonomics by Dubner and Levitt, How Brands Become Icons by Douglas Holt, and How Brands Grow by Byron Sharp. In every case, someone has eventually informed me that that particular book has now been discredited. And in every case I've thought, "That's awkward, I've already used that theory to help create a very effective campaign".
So we constantly jump from one theory to the next. And this shows in our advertising, marketing and brands, and their declining effectiveness. The growing "infobesity" drives stress, and leads to both paralysis and bad decisions (see Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, and Gut Feelings by Gerd Gigerenzer). It can also lead to sameness.
Distinctiveness is about originality and individuality. It's about outliers and boldly focused initiatives. Increasingly we have herding instead - an ancient instinct that's all about following and fitting in. What's changed is that new channels have accelerated and broadened the effect. Mediocrity is a virus, and technology is enabling it to move throughout the global marketing and advertising industry with ease.
If we're all exposed to the same stuff our output starts to look the same. At least until it all changes simultaneously with the next global trend. Recently it's been "social purpose" advertising. Has this approach worked for some brands? Of course. Particularly if, like Dove, you were one of the first to do it - way back when it was truly distinctive. But once every second brand has loudly declared their commitment to diversity, health and education through their advertising, no one gains an advantage.
What brand owners and their agencies need, well beyond Covid-19, is less consumption and more creation. It's the excessive constantly changing input that's burning us all out, not the output. If we want to develop fresh and distinctive brands and campaigns, we need to free ourselves from the distraction of being constantly updated by multiple balanced points of view. Artists, writers, filmmakers and poets escape normal to create uniqueness. Brands too need to obsess over bold individual pursuits - find their own influencers, form their own beliefs, and promote a clear and strong vision.
- David (DT) Thomason is a brand and advertising strategist