Is it finally time to kill off marketing after all these years? It might well be, since brands that actually have real purpose and meaning are already winning, and threatening to overturn the stereotypical storytelling style of marketing embodied by Don Draper in “Mad Men.”
Marketing and branding have always been built on the selling of dreams—the association of a product with a customer’s hopes and aspirations. But selling dreams has disguised some rather unpalatable nightmares in our recent history. Lest we forget Camel cigarettes telling us that “More Doctors Smoke Camels Than Any Other Cigarette,” or Lucky Strike explaining that its cigarettes are toasted to remove “dangerous irritants that cause throat irritation and coughing.” Yes, we might not be that bad now, but something similar is still happening today.
Many products and services that position themselves as modern and cutting edge—darlings of the tech age—can be unethical behind the scenes. Recently, an email management service was exposed for selling private user data to Uber—something users might only realise if they read the company’s 5,000-word terms of service document.
But it’s not as if most of us working in the industry don’t care about the state of the world. The team in question didn’t show up to work one morning thinking: “How can we stick one over our users?” We all want to build open, honest, and useful services. So what’s going wrong?
I believe the issue starts with losing track of purpose. We all know the story: founder starts a company with purpose, company gets large, purpose gets diluted or isn’t taken care of, accidents happen. But, sometimes, the shiny words you use to describe your purpose are just that, words. And if your operation, products, or services don’t match the promise of your words, then that’s just bad practice but, perhaps, still forgivable. But if you say it, and you know it’s a lie, then you deserve what you get.
Stand For Something
I can remember, a long time ago it became a mantra from the marketing and branding industry that brands had to be “more than just a logo.” The concept was that the values of the brand should manifest themselves in every interaction with a customer, and at every touch point. Sadly, a lot of those same firms just carried on designing logos and brand books. Iterations of logo and visual style happened every few years, with very little progress on building purpose and meaning into every interaction.
The instant backlash against perceived inauthenticity that we are witnessing illustrates a basic truth: what you stand for and live for, as a company, IS the brand. Brands that neglect to incorporate their purpose into their external stories, their products, services, experiences, and culture will, actually, fail to be brands in the future. Like Draper, we could all chuckle into our Old Fashioneds when this happens, but, as industry professionals, we have a responsibility to get this right and drive more positive outcomes.
Authenticity is now a pre-requisite for success with the incoming generations. Young, digital-savvy consumers—that’s all of them—are a tricky combination of caring more about the world than ever, while being more fickle than ever when it comes to products, services, and brands. It’s probably no surprise that young people prefer a shoe company that gives 60 million pairs of shoes to those that need it over one that pays one person $1billion dollars in sponsorship. Stand for something, drive positive outcomes for society, and make a difference. It’s valued, and it’s valuable. Increasingly, this is where profit will live.
To help move this forward, the entire ecosystem of clients, agencies, designers, developers, coaches, strategists, and VCs needs to be braver, and to look for purpose and meaning in everything we do.
There are inspiring examples to follow. A great example is natural beauty and bath products manufacturer and retailer Lush. Traceability is a core value for them, and they have always gone out on a limb to present it as a stance, a value, and a product. You can trace every Lush ingredient back to where it came from. They present a truth, and are valued by their customers for doing so. This fact has a direct correlation to their profitability, and they work hard to stay true.
Embrace The Truth
According to IRI and Boston Consulting Group’s 2015 European study, responsible consumption (RC) brands have now overtaken “conventional” brands in terms of growth rate. It also finds RC products are able to command a higher price point, on average 58% (and as much as 113%) more. And the Meaningful Brands survey found that “meaningful brands,” which contribute to consumer wellbeing and quality of life, outperform the stock market by 206%.
If you are doing things with your company that run counter to what you say you believe in, whether that’s accidental or deliberate, then it’s going to be toxic in the end. If it isn’t accidental, then it’s quite likely to be terminal, not just toxic. By contrast, those companies that embrace real values throughout their process have been shown to benefit from increased longevity and, ultimately, profitability.
So let’s kill branding and marketing, and embrace purpose and meaning.