Death of a salesman: why brand advertising is losing its mojo

A few nights back, during a bout of gin and tonic infused ennui, my partner and I decided we needed to take the family on holiday to Fiji. Get away from all this lovely autumnal Auckland weather for some lovely autumnal weather elsewhere. This made sense at the time.

Within about 30 minutes we had binge-reviewed a number of resorts, planned an itinerary and booked flights, transfers and accommodation. And drunk two more gin and tonics.

In looking back over this process, what was most striking about the decision-making is how little the purchases we made involved anything close to what might be traditionally called marketing or advertising. No brochures were looked at, no advertising seen, no brand names recognised or reviewed for appropriate self-actualising imagery. Even the branded websites for the resorts and airlines only received a cursory glance.

Because so much ‘real’ information on product and service experiences was available, there was little need for the information that traditional marketing and advertising sources ply. Simply put, we didn’t need the fluff because we had the facts.

This idea was recently spelled out beautifully in The New Yorker by financial writer James Surowiecki. In his article ‘Twilight of the Brands”, he argued that brands have far lower value in information rich environments than they do in information poor environments, because people no longer need to rely on them as a proxy to product quality – now they can find out about product quality directly.

Clearly if such a notion is true, there are considerable ramifications for some pretty central marketing ideas, such as brand loyalty and differentiation. And even for the idea of marketing itself. And there’s pretty strong evidence to suggest that this is the case. In a previous column for this magazine [NZ Marketing], we established fairly clearly that brand loyalty is in strong decline, and similarly that people were having more difficultly clearly differentiating brands within markets.

So brands can be made less valuable by the amount of product and service information that’s available. This all makes sense. But it feels like there is something more going on – that brands are being made even less powerful by the way marketers are choosing to play the brand game.

It comes back to the idea of receptivity to information. If we now have less need for the ‘information’ that brands provide, it also stands to reason that we make ourselves less receptive to these forms when they arrive. So when a brand ad comes on TV, for example, we are now less inclined to take on board, even subconsciously, the message that it is conveying to us. We now feel we don’t need to ‘learn’ this and store it away in our memories like we used to. If we want information, we know we can look for it at a time that suits us. And we can use channels we trust more – such as the opinions of our peers and professionals. You can even see this idea in how kids learn at school now – perfecting the art of searching for information, rather than storing information.

What this idea of receptivity suggests is that for brands to achieve any traction with people in today’s world, we need to rethink how they choose to impart their information. For traction to be gained, it would follow that brands need to integrate into the channels and approaches that consumers now use for information – search engines, social media, review sites, etc., rather than continuing to support their own old-world communication channels led by brand advertising.

The central thought posed here, is not that brands themselves are irrelevant, but that the channels they use to communicate are. And that continued use of these is helping to make brands irrelevant, by presenting information in a way that is no longer effective.

What’s interesting in all of this is that marketers are now looking to establish much more ‘converged’ approaches to how they communicate with consumers, harnessing the same social media and one-to-one channels that represent the ways people conduct their information-searching activities. But these are always adopted in addition to the traditional brand activities that lead marketing; as supplementary channels for broadening what is still at heart a traditional one-way brand message. Sort of like how Coco Pops is ‘fortified’ with four vitamins and iron.

The feeling is that for brands to continue to have a currency for business, we need to totally rethink how we go about cultivating and managing these assets. If the way people shop and make decisions has changed, marketing needs to move with this. It needs to find new ways to effectively stimulate sales through a clear-eyed understanding of human behaviour, rather than simply adhering to practices of the past.

It’s time for business to catch up with the people it wishes to serve.

  • Andrew Lewis is managing director of The Research Agency.    
  • This story originally appeared in the May/June edition of NZ Marketing.

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