An implicit understanding: why media agencies need to think about brand body language

As media agencies strive to reinvent themselves, FCB Media’s Rufus Chuter says they need to remember the unspoken power of brand behaviour—and their role in brand building. 

In his address to the 2014 Effie Awards audience, judge Paul Feldwick remarked that short-term promotions seemed more prevalent than long-term, sustained brand building in New Zealand. As creative agency heads nodded in agreement, I couldn’t help but feel that media agencies need to acknowledge their responsibility in building brands too. 

As Paul Catmur’s recent ‘Come back media, all is forgiven’ article brilliantly summarised, media agencies have undergone significant transformation. Set against a soundtrack of paid media’s demise, media agencies are increasingly mirroring creative agencies, employing creative directors and seeking to lead the creative process direct with content creators (mostly publishers). Media owners are reorganising to meet this shift. Relationships between client, media agency, creative agency and publisher are being redrawn. 

For some this is progress. And it should be if everyone can park their egos and agency KPIs. But in media agencies’ race to become more like creative agencies, to seek ownership of the message as well as the medium, we run the risk of taking our eye off one the most powerful brand building tools in our arsenal: brand behaviour.   

As any psychologist or interview coach will tell you, over 90 percent of communication is non-verbal. We’re pretty simple creatures that use in-built shortcuts or heuristics via our intuitive “system 1” thinking to make the most of our decisions. It’s why in interviews you should dress to impress, keep your palms visible and tilt your head to the right (according to a quick Google, this will make you ‘look reliable and professional’). 

Brands have body language too. In his brilliant IPA Excellence Paper, Pete Buckley outlines how brands send implicit signals through both their behaviour and how their use is observed by others. This body language builds associations and feelings that can have a greater impact on decision making than the rational, explicit messaging it communicates. 

Some of the most powerful brands have been built on what they signal through their media behaviour, not just what they say. Absolut’s focus on outside back covers always signified a vodka set apart from the competition; Skoda successfully signalled its repositioning in the UK through surprisingly premium contexts like Tatler; Beats Audio infiltrated popular culture, implicitly communicating that it was the choice of a new generation.

But in advertising we’re often fixated with the opposite, the explicit. We strive to perfect propositions, debate key messages and dispute end lines. As Jeremy Bullmore observed, “Ever since the arrival of television, brands, their owners and advisors have been obsessed with what brands say at the expense of what brands do.” In our race to become content creators, media agencies have to be careful we aren’t overwhelmed by the same obsession. 

If this sounds like a rallying cry for media agencies to stick to their ‘media placement’ knitting, it isn’t. Nor is it a sort of media Luddism demanding a return to ‘traditional’ paid media focus. In fact, having clear behavioural principles is becoming more important as digital, content and data use become more common. 

Firstly, as addressable media becomes more prevalent and plans fragment, brands are in desperate need of behavioural consistency. In our newly-programmatic world, audience-based buying has to be balanced by context and content filters to ensure we aren’t chasing the right individual at the expense of the right behaviour.  

Secondly, as consumer choice increases, popularity is becoming an even more important heuristic. So brands need to make sure that they’re generating the right social signals. The fact a brand is featured in a magazine or mentioned by a friend means more than just the mention. Dr Dre knew that seeing his mates wearing Beats headphones would do more for the brand’s desirability than any explicit message could. 

As Peter Field’s analysis of advertising effectiveness shows, these social signals—or signals of earned “brand fame”—have a proven, and increasing, impact on commercial success. As the orchestrators of earned media outcomes, that should be music to media agencies’ ears.

Thirdly, the interpreted value of a brand’s signal is proportionate to its perceived cost. You could call this the ‘let’s be on telly to make our brand look bigger’ effect. Once a media truism, a recent study by the Stockholm School of Economics provides validation. It linked perceived advertiser expense, effort and creativity to consumer outcomes, including word of mouth. As audiences’ media consumption shifts to digital, conversations about media value should take this effect into account.

Finally, as we increasingly seek to optimise media behaviour based on live data, media agencies have to be careful of the implicit brand message this might communicate. I once worked with a marketing director who believed that the behavioural signals her brand transmitted were more important than finding her customers ten percent cheaper. We had all the media ‘big data’ we needed but if an optimised behaviour didn’t feel right, we didn’t do it. It made for hard conversations (try telling a media sales rep that despite its impressive performance, their brand is ‘too grubby’) but, executed with consistency over several years, it built her brand in the minds of its customers.  

If all this just sounds like good media planning, that’s because it is. But as media agencies strive to reinvent themselves, to create communication content and drive explicit messaging (and occasionally tread on creative agencies’ toes in the process), we mustn’t forget the bit we should always own: the unspoken power of brand behaviour. As Feldwick identified, our clients’ long-term brand health depends on it.

  • Chuter is general manager, strategy and performance, at FCB Media. [email protected]
  • This article originally appeared in the November/December edition of NZ Marketing.

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