The World May Be Changing But Marketing Fundamentals Have Not

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There’s nothing new in this article. But maybe that’s the way it should be?

Right now, everyone is talking about the things that have changed as a result of coronavirus. Whilst, of course, this is something which must be reflected on, there are also an abundance of things which have remained the same, and maybe aren’t getting the attention they deserve.

All too often, marketing gets caught up searching for the exciting, innovative. We’re all guilty of magpie-like tendencies, obsessed and distracted by shiny, new things. New trends. New technologies and marketing “tools”. New beliefs in what works and what doesn’t. We’re slightly addicted to, and fetishize, all that is emergent and changing. But it’s usually the things that don’t change that are actually most important to both consumers and brands.

Whilst the impact of COVID-19 on marketing pales into insignificance compared to its effect on other aspects of life, it has undoubtedly led to more suggestions that the creative communications landscape has fundamentally changed forever. That people’s relationships with brands have shifted. That the old rules now don’t apply and everything we knew before is now wrong. That we need to use creativity in new ways. But that isn’t the case.

It is symptomatic of what the cultural observer Douglas Rushkoff describes as: “our society reorienting itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real-time and always-on. It’s not a mere speeding up, it’s more of a diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now. So much so that we are beginning to dismiss anything that is not happening right now – and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.” This should feel very familiar to many in marketing and our collective tendency to recoil from the known and lean towards the new.

However, that’s not to say we should reject anything new or be sensitive to changing context – of course we should – but as said, it’s often the things that don’t change that are most important in the brand/consumer relationship, and therefore most important to consider when developing creative comms.

Human nature is hardwired into us from millennia of evolution. As Bill Bernbach said many years ago: “It is fashionable to talk about the changing person. A communicator must be concerned with the unchanging person – what drives them, what instincts dominate their every action.” How we meet these motivations, in terms of tangible product development or the intangible brand promise and messaging, may differ over time but ultimately, they still aim to satisfy the same wants, needs and desires.

By ignoring these unchanging fundamentals and focusing instead on each new tool and platform we risk what Mark Ritson called the tactification of marketing: “where marketing seems to be devolving into a base tactical pursuit devoid of strategic thinking.” It makes us less concerned with long-term strategies on how to better meet the needs of our audiences and more concerned with shiny short-term tactics around how we can get them to respond to us.

The impact of this is clear from the recent Gunn reports. Marketing campaigns are at their least effective in the 24 years since the reports have been collating their data.  This is largely driven by a shift to short-term activation tactics and media strategies at the expense of longer-term brand activity.

But it’s not that the favored new tools and activation tactics are devoid of creativity, it’s also definitely not that creativity itself has lost its power to drive business success. It’s that by focusing our creative efforts on what is changing, we’re failing to use it where it will have the most impact – appealing to our unchanging human motivations.

It would be churlish to suggest that COVID-19 has had no impact to marketers.  Clearly the growing economic uncertainty and factors such as the supply chain disruptions that have led to people trying more new brands than they may have previously (amongst many other repercussions), is likely to influence overall buying behavior for a while. But whether it will change the way we respond to and process communications is much less certain.

And because of this, we can’t forget that creativity, if wielded in the right way, is still an incredibly powerful lever for business growth. For example, it can help make a brand more memorable within a crowded category, it can increase customer preference, make the purchase less price-sensitive, secure greater distribution and create future value.

It is basically the law for planners to quote Binet and Field when talking about how creativity can improve these types of business metrics. But, they have powerfully shown that when creativity is targeted at our inherent emotions (making the audience feel something alongside more rational messaging that helps the audience know more about them or the product), that it has the greatest success. In other words, by ignoring the unchanging motivations, we effectively blunt one of our most powerful tools for business growth.

Given the forced dichotomies of our age, it’s important to also state that it isn’t an either-or. It isn’t about the old or the new. It’s both. We need to learn how COVID-19 has changed the context around and within communications for the foreseeable future and then use that to better appeal to the unchanging motivations.

Creativity shouldn’t be relegated to responding to and augmenting only what is changing. For it to have the most impact for our clients let us remember to also focus it on what isn’t.

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