Marketing Creativity in The Digital Age
When I was a kid, I loved Tony the Tiger. He told me that his Frosted Flakes were “Grrrrreat!” and I believed him, getting up early so that I could scarf some down before my brothers would eat them all.
The character was created by Leo Burnett, a man and an agency famous for positioning products through iconic characters, such as Tony, the Jolly Green Giant and The Marlboro man.
Other famous campaigns, such as Volkswagen’s Think Small (DDB) and Nike’s “Just Do It” (Wieden and Kennedy), defined brands in the marketplace. While the principles that led to those legendary campaigns have lost none of their power, they are no longer sufficient. Marketing creativity is breaking out of old confines and making new rules.
The Old Paradigm
In the movie What Women Want, Mel Gibson played a creative director who gained the ability to read women’s thoughts. Armed with this new power, he became an advertising superhero, able to glean insights and compose brand messages that created meaning for the consumer. It was an idealized version of the ad business, but not far off the mark.
Historically, the ad business has revolved around positioning and messaging. Positioning was the essence of marketing strategy and the message was what gave voice to the brand. A strong marketing message was no less than the beating heart of a successful business and brands were crafted, revered and, most of all, tightly controlled.
In the “Mad Men” days of Don Draper, messages were broadcast on TV to a public that was fairly monolithic. There were just a few channels, so you could be sure that once you were on air most of your consumers would hear what you had to say. Very little thought went into how to reach them because they were so easy to get to.
Positioning and messaging are still important and probably just as important as they always were, but they no longer enough. The marketplace has evolved and we simply need to do more.
Media Fragmentation and the Rise of Targeting
Things really changed in the 1980’s. Cable penetration skyrocketed and viewing options increased exponentially. While teenagers were glued to music videos, their parents could watch MASH re-runs. Watching TV became less of a family affair and more a form of personal expression. What you watched, in a certain sense, began to define who you were.
The phenomenon was somewhat reflexive as well. As your interests defined your viewing habits, what you viewed influenced your interests. Thematic channels, from MTV to ESPN to CNN affected how you saw the world and, in turn, how you wanted the world to see you.
Audiences fragmented and that changed how advertising campaigns were executed. It became harder to reach everybody, so marketers spent a whole lot more time and energy deciding who to reach and targeting their message to specific consumers.
Web 2.0: The Consumer Takes Over
While the rise of the Internet and the Web made big waves, not much changed in the 90’s. There was some interactivity and some e-commerce, e-mail began to dominate correspondence and Internet penetration dramatically increased. Nevertheless, the online experience was slow and not particularly exciting and therefore the impact was limited.
Web 2.0 changed all that. The Internet got faster, of course, but what really changed was how new client side protocols began to enhance experience. Technologies like Ajax and Flash video surreptitiously loaded content onto your computer without you noticing and then displayed it for you on screen, providing a seamless experience.
The improved capabilities enabled content sharing and not just professional content, but amateur content as well. Social networks such as Youtube and Facebook became forums for ordinary people to not only make themselves heard, but to even compete with the messages broadcast by marketers. Here’s one example:
The Kryptonite brand was positioned as unbreakable and their marketing messaging was focused on that “unique selling proposition.” However, the video above showed how easily it was picked with a simple Bic pen and no amount of creativity could save the brand.
An even more famous example were the “Diet Coke and Mentos” videos
In both cases, brands were viewed millions of times, not as much as a typical TV campaign, but the videos were popular enough to get picked up by mainstream media and make an impact. The genie was out of the bottle. Brands were no longer owned solely by marketers, but also by consumers themselves.
The Evolution of Creative Teams
In the old days of positioning and messaging, a creative team was made up of primarily a copywriter and an art director. Together, they would create what Leo Burnett called “the marriage of words and pictures that produces the fresh, the memorable and the believable effect.” The campaign would then go on air and the job would be done.
However, as should be abundantly clear by now, the world has become significantly more complex. Campaigns don’t end when they go “off air” any more. They live on as consumers praise them, trash them, mash them up and discuss them online. Control, if it ever really existed, has become a dangerous illusion.
Nowadays, creativity needs to go beyond messages and include mechanisms for interaction. In addition to copywriters and art directors, there are web developers, event specialists, social media experts and on and on. The “big idea” has been replaced by a network of ideas that develop in real time as consumers themselves co-create brands.
This new reality requires different competencies than the old one. A vast array of skill sets need to be integrated. Operational interfaces and standards are not well established and working principles need to be built on the fly. World War II style marketing warfare has been replaced by the equivalent of counterinsurgency tactics.
Boldly Into The Future
I, for one, am excited by the new marketing landscape. While many have nostalgia for the “big idea” type creativity of the old Don Draper days, I see much greater possibility in the networked marketplace.
While the new face of marketing creativity has yet to fully emerge from the shadows, it’s clear that the successful marketers of the future will need to accomplish these four things:
Stimulate Emotions: As I wrote in an earlier post, emotions are like a little yellow highlighter in our brains. They’re powerful because they bypass the rational center in our forebrains and go straight to embedding themselves in our consciousness.
From an evolutionary perspective, emotions helped us remember what was important. When we saw a rustle in the bushes and our best friend got eaten by a lion, it was essential to be able to remember the incident without repetition.
In much the same way, advertising that excites the senses creates instant and memorable brand associations. That’s one reason why TV is still so strong.
Tell a Story: The first time I heard about the concept of brands as stories was in John Grant’s New Marketing Manifesto. Margaret Mark and Carol Pearson’s The Hero and The Outlaw also broke new ground by suggesting brands be multifaceted archetypes rather than simple trademarks. More recently, Peter Gruber’s Tell to Win describes stories as “emotional transport.”
Clearly, the notion of brands as occupying a static positioning has outlived it’s usefulness. Brands today must not only capture consumers attention, but keep it. That means they need to evolve in the marketplace while staying true to core values.
We don’t “build” brands anymore. They become organisms that take on lives of their own. Stories allow consumers to identify with these strange new life forms. Without a story, all you’ve got left is a bunch of ads.
Enable Peer to Peer Interaction: While broadcasting messages will continue to play a central part, consumers themselves are sharing brands as well. While they can’t be controlled, they can be encouraged.
Creative directors native to digital know this instinctively. Mechanisms of interaction need to be designed to empower consumers, but care must be taken not to intrude or offend. This is still an emerging area and we still have a lot to learn.
If you’re looking for a place to start, here’s 4 ways to utilize social networks for marketing.
Perpetual Beta: Probably the biggest paradigm shift that marketers need to make is the transition from campaigns to perpetual beta. We can no longer think in terms of marketing programs with a distinct start and finish. They are ongoing.
Interactivity needs to be rethought as well. We’re used to thinking in term of “dialogues,” but dialogues are events. The new interactivity is recursive. Brands track consumers that are following the brands that are following them and on and on, co-creating experiences.
Strategy can no longer pick out one point on the continuum, but needs to develop and adapt in real-time. Most of all, the new creativity will no longer revolve around one “big idea,” but hinge on the combined talents of diverse network of teams.
Without disparaging the great accomplishments of the past, or the genius of those form whom they sprung, I think it’s fair to say that the future of marketing creativity will be more rich, nuanced and immersive than anything we’ve seen before.