Assessing the Damage
Something has clearly gone awry. One simple measure of how bad things are for the ad industry was a recent online survey by InterBrand. Questioning 2500 marketing professionals, they voted Google the most influential Brand of 2005. Google has never run a major advertising campaign, yet it is top of mind for marketers worldwide. Not only is the company voraciously consuming the revenues that ad agencies have relied upon to keep them in expense accounts all these years, but the very prominence of the company pointedly illustrates the imminent irrelevance of the traditional ad agency offering.
Once upon a time, Brands used to comprise some “Visuals” plus “Positioning,” carefully shepherded by the agencies in ad campaigns with “single-minded propositions.” The Google “Brand” just is Google.com — the simplicity of the landing page & the accuracy of the search results.
“Come on, though,” you might say, “Google is different — it’s a web site — it is its own product — that sort of thing is a one-off and doesn’t apply to your common or garden offline Brands.” Hardly. Nike, for example, now enables their customers to custom build and order unique trainers online, or help runners in London find the best jogging routes through the city. Coca-Cola’s “Coke Studios” lets teens meet, chat, make and share music, and download ringtones in a completely virtual social environment. Saab provides in-depth research and configuration tools to allow a customer to select exactly the model they want.
Post-purchase, customers can access warranties and owner’s manuals, receive product updates and track maintenance records. Every car dealer knows that anyone who walks onto his forecourt these days has already spec’d their ideal car online, knows what the price is going to be, what the re-sale value is going to be, and how much their competitors would charge for a comparable model. These days the fastest way to improve car purchase intent is to improve site functionality, information design and usability.
These digital Brand extensions are not one-off “campaigns” — they are a permanent presence into which marketing has to fit. They won’t appeal to just one target audience who happens to be at a particular point in the purchase cycle — they will have to meet the competing needs of several diverse audiences. They will usually require careful management, updating and optimization over time. In many cases, they have enormous reach — millions more people are likely to visit Microsoft.com than will ever see a Microsoft advertising campaign.
That’s just a few examples from web development — it doesn’t even scratch the surface of the effects of mobile phones and devices, interactive TV, blogging and various other digital miscellanea. The net is this. This traditional conception of Brand is hopelessly limited.
A Brand these days is a “User Experience” in the broadest sense — a combination of look, feel and function. This maps to the old paradigm — Look is the Visual Identity, and Feel, the messaging and emotional out-take. But Feel now also covers Brand behaviors — how a Brand does something. And Function is completely new — what the Brand does. That used to just be the product. Now, with digital, that’s no longer so — the product is one part of the “function” of the Brand, the digital experience another. These days, for some Brands, the product and the digital experience are merging into one.
Getting a Grip
It is not the planner’s fault that the answer “we should say X” is now the wrong one — they have not yet realized that the question has changed from “what should we say?” to “what should we do?” or, more importantly, “what should we let customers do?” This is the real question for Brands. Digital allows brands to be relevant enablers — letting customers do things in a way that makes sense for the Brand and to the customer. 90% of being an enabler is what relevant, delightful and useful functionality you offer to your customers.