More doing, less describing: what brands can learn from actors

One fascinating truth of modern marketing is that despite 50 years of research, practice, learning and refinement, we are still pretty rubbish at creating great brands that genuinely connect with people. 

Certainly there are amazing oft-cited examples—the Apples, Nikes and Red Bulls of this world. But these really are the exception rather than the rule; outliers that point to possibility, while also serving as markers by which we can judge our own shortfalls. 

To put some numbers to the issue, a recent survey of European and North American consumers by Havas Media Group showed that people would not care less if 93 percent of brands disappeared entirely. And only five percent of brands were rated by people as actually having a positive impact on their lives. 

As a measure of success, these numbers are astonishingly poor and talk to underlying and systemic issues with how we are approaching building brands. We know this brand dilemma to be true, not only by how many brands sail under our radar daily, but also by how many consultants and tools exist in this field to help us solve our problems. Brand onions, pyramids, diamonds, biscuits, brand DNA, building blocks, IDs, brand equity models, even brand force fields (thank you Google) have all been developed to help us think more clearly about how a brand is constructed. 

But for all these resources and tools we still end up with brands that sit in the 93 percent bracket. Indeed, it must be argued that such approaches could even be fuelling the size of the ‘who cares’ brand pile, given the ubiquity of their application. 

So where are we going wrong? How might we approach building connections with humans in a better way? 

One area of real potential is by looking to borrow our branding techniques not from management and marketing disciplines, but from a profession whose purpose it is to make people bond with, and care about, their creations: actors.

A cornerstone of acting technique is Stanislavksi’s method. In this he insists a character must always have an objective (what do I want), an object (who do I want it from) and an action (how am I going to get it) in order to be believable.

Stanislavski would argue an actor must always be trying to achieve something through some direct action. And it’s through these actions we form a sense of the character. We know them to be honest or cool or sad by what they do, not because they are trying to play a state of ‘cool’ or ‘sad’. The actor defines a character’s essence not by adjectives, but by verbs; the things they do to achieve their goals.

And this is where we get an insight into where things might be going wrong with how we approach brand development currently. 

Emerging bleary-eyed from a four-hour brand workshop, we almost always hold a brand template filled with descriptors. Our brand is honest, down-to-earth, modern, fun-loving and irreverent. But our template invariably has little in the way of ‘doing’ words. We have no sense of what action the brand is going to take in order to achieve its objective with people. Is it to inspire, entertain, comfort? We often don’t know.

The issue that this focus on describing over doing creates is that we end up spending all our time telling consumers what our brand is like, rather than letting people decide what we are like via our actions. It results in ‘unreal’ brands that are generic and bland. And more importantly, it robs consumers of their role in the construction of the brand. 

In much the same way that interpreting character and emotion is actually an audience’s job, not an actor’s, we need to trust consumers to make emotional sense of our brands themselves, based on what we do. Because what they create for themselves, imbuing the brand with their own personal experience and memories, will ultimately be richer than what we create. 

Great brands do this intuitively. Nike challenges, Apple inspires, Red Bull energises, Volvo reassures us. And this is why we respond so well to them. They have motivations, they have goals, they take actions and through this we get a sense of them as people—and that’s much more relational and engaging.

Perhaps it’s time we started thinking like Stanislavski and putting the verb into our brands.    

  • 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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