How Brands Can Survive the Impending Crisis

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These are turbulent times all around – including in our business. The agency world is in constant flux, with opinions and trends changing as often as the weather. All this presents challenges for advertisers, marketers and agencies, who have trouble looking beyond the shiny promises of innovation. The reality is that the focus on the short term is currently hurting many brands. We’re so eager to become bigger, better and faster that we’re not getting anywhere – when in fact there are more opportunities than ever to combine short-term and long-term strategies, especially from a creative viewpoint.

Brands are so much more than businesses alone – while businesses, for their part, are more than the sum of their transactions. Brands are part of their communities: their neighbourhoods, cities and society at large. They also play a crucial role in the lives of the people they employ. When brands speak out about issues of any kind, this inevitably has a huge impact – a halo effect of sorts that goes well beyond the quarterly results or the real-time data that we’re focusing on at that particular moment.

A growing number of companies are boasting about putting people or impact before profit. The cynical among us might scoff at this, arguing that it’s nothing but a ploy to generate more revenue. I personally don’t really care whether brands are driven by intrinsic motivation or whether they simply have no other choice in a rapidly changing industry, as long as the end result is the same. In the case of Triodos Bank, it’s part of their DNA. ABN AMRO Bank, meanwhile, sees circularity as the only viable avenue to create long-term value, but is keenly aware at the same time that their brand isn’t quite ready yet for a full transition to a circular growth model. At the end of the day the main thing is that you’re willing to be a thought leader, are authentic and genuine, and consistent in your policies, values and beliefs. This is the only way to implement change – and be a leader – in the sector in which you operate. Whether they’re consumers, employees or investors, people have a deep emotional connection with these types of brands.

Bogus mission statement

We live in a time of extreme transparency. Any mission statement that’s just for show will quickly be exposed as bogus, whereas brands with real, genuine purpose will flourish and thrive. Having a purpose is not about embracing a popular issue, investing 10K in a project and then spending 100K in order to shout it from the rooftops (you’re better off investing 110K in that one project instead). In fact, it doesn’t need to be a grand, showy thing at all. Your purpose simply is what you bring to the equation rather than what you hope to get out of it. It might be a mantra hanging on the company wall or a key theme in the CEO’s speech… It’s something employees can feel – it’s reflected in everything the company says and does. The company’s purpose helps you understand why certain decisions are made – whether you agree with them or not – and forgive other people’s mistakes. At the same time, it also guides your marketing and communications activities.

Crack for marketers and agencies

However, this is not just a time of transparency – we’re also living in a cultural moment of extreme focus on the ultra-short term. However, this approach is ultimately detrimental to brand value. Marketers tend to focus increasingly on strategy: speed, measurability, target audience, and data (real-time or otherwise). Creative agencies are trying to prove their relevance by coming up with short-lived gimmicks – flashy concepts that bring together tech, data and creativity but lack effectiveness in the end. The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) in the UK has even cautioned that we’re heading for a total ‘creative effectiveness crisis’ if we continue to reward short-term ideas. High-profile industry events such as Cannes Lions and ADCN’s Dutch Creativity Awards celebrate the wrong kinds of achievements, which in turn has agencies chasing the wrong priorities. Meanwhile, we are seeing the emergence of production powerhouses that can create, distribute, target, measure and tweak just about anything, and can do so faster all the time. Customer-centric communications on steroids, in other words. It’s basically like crack for marketers: we keep wanting more, and we expect it to be delivered in no time at all.

The advantage for marketers is that they just need to press a button and – presto – everything is measured. They don’t need to stick out their necks or be exposed to risk: everything is sent through the same wind tunnel and boiled down to the lowest common denominator, proposition, length or format. And while that certainly might work, at least for a while, the downside is that anyone can do this – anyone can access the same channels, resources, speeds, data, etc. It won’t be long before all brands will be on par again and we’ll be back to having a level playing field. You can copy behaviour, but you can’t copy DNA.

Mindfulness for marketers

Just keeping their brand up-to-date and up-to-speed is practically a full-time job, especially with all those suppliers badgering you, eager to dish out glib but ultimately useless advice. The fastest-growing agencies right now are those that support advertisers with what is known as ‘fit-in’. They make sure you can keep up with the fast guys and help you with tech, market reach, and distribution. They deliver speed, integration and production power. They are the successors to what used to be known as ‘full-service ad agencies’. You will find them in all types and sizes, ranging from consultancies and digital agencies to large integrated production powerhouses. They are today’s winners, and excel in areas such as strategy, integration and speed. Dashboards allow you to measure and make changes in real time, but it’s only a matter of time before everyone will have access to this tool. It’s time to take it down a notch and reconsider our business and why we’re in it in the first place.

Think big ideas!

Because that’s the question: what is the big idea behind the brand? What’s the strategy for the period beyond that one quarter? What is your mission, and how do you reconnect with it? How do you make sure this mission is reflected in everything you do? Who will keep it all together and be in charge of it all? What more does the brand have to offer beyond merely a series of seamless experiences that have pretty much become a given by now? Our work is not just about fitting in; it’s also about standing out:  it’s about that one factor that makes a brand what it is, makes people proud to be employed by them, purchase their products, or invest in them. I predict that, in a time of economic uncertainty and advances in technology that can be copied faster than ever before, the only solid certainty will be your DNA. So it’s time to invest in that, before it’s too late.

Yes is more

Brands with a mission have buy-in, are trend-setting, have a clear sense of direction, represent stability, and are well-thought-out and well-designed. They’re more relevant than brands without a mission, giving them greater commercial value. There’s no need to be afraid of having a purpose, values and principles – in fact, it’s a necessity. It also saves you time, money and energy, since it serves as a compass, showing you where to go. In other words, you will no longer have to glom onto every new advertising fad. Yes is more.

Nowadays, brands have to operate on two different levels simultaneously.

It’s about standing out and fitting in.

Slow and fast marketing.

Strategy and tactics.

DNA and behaviour.

Being solid and flexible.

Creative direction and data direction.

In other words: relevant brands need to be built along two axes. And as an advertiser or marketer, you really only need two types of agencies to serve you.

The first type helps and advises you with the ‘Big Idea’; they translate your mission into the brand’s DNA and an intelligent strategy, and provide creative direction and design for everything your brand says and does.

The second one can manage the full integration of channels, media and production using the right data. Since these two types of agencies don’t compete with each other, they have no trouble working together. Plus, it’s a lot more straightforward – and cheaper – than using the services of 4, 5, 6, 7 or 15 agencies that are basically only competing against each other.

To sum it up:

– Prioritise your mission and let this guide you in everything you do, in terms of both promise and evidence.

– Combine slow and fast marketing, using separate KPIs for each.

– Make sure your digital innovation aligns with your commercial and social mission.

– Let go of several of your agencies and choose the two that will serve you both in the short term and the long term.

– Place these agencies in charge of interaction between these slow and fast operations, so that you are free to focus on more important things.

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