It’s certainly the buzzword of the moment, something that, we’re told, is the exciting new alternative to traditional ‘sell, sell, sell’ marketing.
But is it really so new after all?
The reality is it’s been around since Bill Bernbach was a lad and, I’ll wager, even longer.
Because any brand that knows the true meaning of brand leadership has always sought to take the high ground through a uniquely insightful viewpoint on the sector it’s in that goes way beyond the direct sell.
It’s this indirect approach, taking ownership of the sector by demonstrating a profound understanding and command of the issues surrounding it, that can instil and consolidate brand loyalty like nothing else can.
So what’s actually new about content is simply the label itself rather than the, erm, content as it were.
It’s merely the latest shiny object, masquerading as a powerful new selling tool, that the industry is using to attract new customers.
An exercise in marketing in fact.
So no surprises there then.
Which is not to say it lacks power. Far from it.
And, if this focus on ‘content’ encourages more brands to adopt this broader perspective, then so much the better.
The point is that it’s nothing new.
A decade or two ago, a campaign I wrote for Wiggins Teape’s brand leading Conqueror paper sought to cement that brand leadership through a series of full page press ads that set out to ‘own’ the whole subject of letter-writing (remember that?).
While a campaign for Aberlour single malt whisky barely referenced the product, preferring instead to focus on the predilections of its ultra-conservative target audience, covering topics ranging from music to art and the current affairs of the day courtesy of a regular weekly column in The Daily Torygraph!
More recently, a periodical taking an overview of the jewellery sector on behalf of a jewellery client and a children’s book encouraging kids to engage with recycling I’m guessing would also both come under the banner heading of ‘content’.
If this is what’s meant by ‘content’, as I say, I’m all for it, regardless of the spurious claims that it’s something shiny and truly new.
My fear, however, is that very often those who use the term mean something much narrower: the literal and mechanical delivery of dry information, without the imperative to engage, compel, persuade and ultimately sell.
Oddly, as an industry, while we’re writing more than ever in the digital space, we appear to have lost sight of the power the written word can have to make us laugh or cry, to win over hearts and minds.
It does make me wonder when I see yet another recruitment ad for a writer of ‘content’.
Because this appears to be what the industry’s verbal stock-in-trade has become.
And that, I’m afraid to say, really is something new.
These days it’s regarded as the ultimate in efficient marketing targeting.
The ultimate panacea for a brand.
Get this. There are an estimated 3.5 billion social media users worldwide.
90.4% of Millennials, 77.5% of Generation Xers and 48.2% of Baby Boomers are active on social media.
And 73% of marketers think social media has been effective.
All of which is hardly surprising when you look at all the targeting options helping you reach your audience more effectively including age, gender, relationship, location, ethnicity, job and education.
While Facebook helps advertisers to drill down into their audience based upon interests such as automotive, charity donations, digital activity, financials, mobile device use, buying, domestic circumstances and travel.
What this means of course is that your messages will be accurately and cost-effectively targeted towards those who are more likely to buy into your brand.
So if, for example, your target happens to be thirty-something trainspotters in Tring or millennial mystics in Middlesex, go right ahead.
You can go narrow or you can go broad if your target is more mass-market.
And, while the traditional advertising channels have become clogged with the beige and the boring, there’s some great stuff going on in the virtual space.
Of course the biggest no-no for a brand here is hard sell and money-off promotions. This is the place for engaging, connecting, sharing and informing.
You’re in business to make money and social media will help you do that but indirectly, through introducing your brand personality to consumers as one they will want to engage with.
The best exponents of social media marketing understand this. And they also understand the things that once upon a time were the hallmark of advertising in the mainstream media: wit, intelligence, irreverence and insights that truly strike a chord with the audience.
To wit, Paddy Power…
Here is a brand that instinctively understands that one of the key elements of the sports fan’s experience is what they call ‘the bantz’.
Their posts are a perfect example of that, as well as a masterclass in having your finger right on the pulse. And, to be fair, their irreverent tone does carry through to the mainstream (until the inevitable jackboot of advertising standards gets involved that is).
Then, on a similar theme, there’s Charmin. What Charmin understands (whisper it) is that we all enjoy toilet humour. And, basic though it might be, they’ve captured that territory with aplomb. At least online. While P&G’s sale of the brand to SCA, and its subsequent rebranding as Cushelle, produced…er…Kenny Koala…
At the other end of the spectrum, in 2019 Gillette’s new take on its long-established slogan ‘The best a man can get’ chimed perfectly with the year of the #MeToo movement by joining in the debate with #TheBestMenCanBe , a positive reinforcement of men who are the most positive of role models.
The result? 1.5 million social media mentions in just one week and the hashtag #TheBestMenCanBe used some 187,000 times in a mere 24 hours.
While a Twitter poll revealed that 82% of people thought the campaign had been a success and that other brands should stand up for their principles too.
Ever noticed any advertising from Starbucks? No, neither have I.
And yet when, in 2017, Starbucks launched the, um, Unicorn Frappuccino upon an unsuspecting world, Instagram went berserk.
This grotesque concoction, with availability restricted to just one week, gave millennials the perfect opportunity to do what they enjoy most: sticking it, in the nicest possible way, to their stuffy old elders (and sticking their shocking pink and sour blue-tinted tongues out at them in the process to boot).
Needless to say the lurid monstrosity, and its hashtag, generated nearly 155,000 Instagram posts, a perfect example of being in tune with your audience.
And, finally, Greggs. Yes, Greggs. THAT Greggs.
When the national bakery outlet launched its new vegan sausage roll, they used social media highly effectively.
But, paradoxically, it was a high-profile critic in the form of Piers Morgan, and the brand’s perfect retort, which catapulted the new product into the pantheon of social media immortality with the Greggs response generating a whopping 20,000 retweets and almost 150,000 likes….
Greggs itself describes the product as “the most hotly debated sausage roll since, well… the sausage roll…..
So what’s the point of all this?
Apart from highlighting the power of social media, of course, what it throws into sharp relief is the inability, or unwillingness, of most brands to carry what is often an engaging and irreverent online presence across to the mainstream.
Here the generic and the corporate tend to take over.
And, sure, as we’ve seen, the precision targeting makes for a cost-effective way to get to those most likely to buy. But, with a significant percentage of the population not even fully paid up members of the social club, brands are missing out on huge untapped potential.
While they might succeed in persuading consumers to switch brands, they’re pretty much preaching to the converted. For me, the overriding message here is about the importance of a consistent brand identity delivering compelling, engaging messaging right across the piece in every medium, both on and offline.
Maximising the brand’s appeal.
With a positive impact on that all-important bottom line.
As was the celebrated Art Director who uttered it.
But it did say something about the times.
Why not, for example, stick a car onto a 48-sheet, fly the island of Manhattan across the Atlantic, launch black jeans with a field of sheep or promote a cigarette brand with a swatch of silk?
Why not, indeed, as I did, launch VW’s first proper sports car without a photo of the vehicle itself, promote a malt whisky through a regular column in the Daily Telegraph, putatively authored by a crusty old Highland crofter with only tangential references to the brand, or Burger King with a pack of barefaced lies?
Or even design an award annual with a padlock but no key to open it?
Sound self indulgent?
Not a bit of it.
All of the work referred to above was relevant.
It was the brand itself, Araldite, that was used to stick the car to the billboard; every year BA would fly the equivalent of the entire population of Manhattan across the Atlantic; Levi’s target audience saw themselves as rebels; the Corrado (God rest its soul) was a consummate combination of pace and grace; the malt whisky buff, at least then, was a gentleman of a certain stamp with some very defined views; and, yes, the Aussie Award annual HAD become fiendishly hard to get into.
So, relevance, yes.
But the work of the period had something else too. Impact. Freshness. And the element of surprise.
Intrusive and relevant. These were the watchwords of Saatchi & Saatchi when it actually was, well, Charles & Maurice.
It seemed obvious then. But it perhaps it seems less obvious now.
After all, your communications can be relevant to a fault but if they don’t get noticed, put brutally, they won’t work.
Equally, creative flights of fancy, sans relevance, will fall on stony ground too.
You of course need both.
As in the iconic ‘Pregnant man’ execution which launched the Saatchi philosophy upon an unsuspecting world.
It’s something the industry, on the whole, appears to have lost sight of.
Truly, the lunatics do appear to have taken over the asylum, or, rather, the suits the creative department.
Work such as some of the above, by virtue of deviating from the norm, takes a little time to catch on. So of course it will fall by the wayside in the benighted focus group.
The result is the vanilla world we live in, where advertising has ceased to be a topic of conversation down the proverbial Dog and Duck, where generating word of mouth and free column inches through a transfixed media are but a faint and forlorn memory.
But let’s just return for a moment to that celebrated Art Director and his ambitions to rewrite the dictionary.
In that regard, it’s fair to say, he did not succeed.
But, in helping rewrite the history of advertising, he contributed in spades.
Admittedly, no one’s exactly visiting anyone these days but I get the sense that no one’s been doing them for some time either.
Why do I feel this?
Well, just a cursory glance at the industry’s output these days would suggest it.
After all, where are the illuminating insights into a brand’s attributes and personality that can make us all view things in an entirely new light?
Marketing is (or should be) about subverting preconceptions and revealing truths that can change opinions.
But what we see, instead, is musical ‘stings’ (the old jingle distilled) and borrowed interest that might achieve fleeting or superficial standout but fail to forge that deeper emotional bond that secures brand loyalty.
As an example of what I mean, one such visit to the home of the UK’s leading brand of writing paper (remember that?) revealed the anomaly of a lab staffed exclusively by PhDs in this and Doctors of that labouring away man and woman – fully to achieve the ultimate sheet of humble A4.
The strapline, ‘Some of the world’s best brains have turned to pulp’ pretty much wrote itself.
A recent campaign for The University of Central Lancashire was inspired by a visit illuminating the true-life journeys of recent alumni, from before to after UCLAN, this thought-provoking transformation crystallised in the strapline ‘Makes you think’.
Over a lunch of currywurst and sauerkraut on a trip to Wolfsburg, meanwhile, an anecdote emerged identifying the VW Passat as the hardest vehicle in its class to break into (a ten-hour marathon on average), leading to the image of an aspiring car thief dug in for the day, perched upon a fishing stool with transistor radio, newspaper and packed lunch to hand.
Finally, an outing to the Douro provided, amongst other things, the revelation that a leading brand of port was ‘Made by a bunch of complete bastardos’ in the form of the remarkable bastardo grape.
So what’s happening here?
Perhaps there’s a reticence on the part of agencies to go beyond the dictates of the client’s marketing team?
Then there’s that time-honoured fear on the agency’s behalf to field those unpredictable creative types with their questionable dress sense and their unexpected questions challenging client sensibilities.
The problem is, of course, that those unexpected questions, and answers, can provide the key to unlocking a brand’s true potential.
So often, the brand’s key point of difference is something taken for granted and overlooked internally thanks to over familiarity. While an objective viewpoint can identify and maximise its true potential.
Which is what a marketing agency, at its best, can do.
And only a complete bastardo wouldn’t want to do that.