Branding is dead, long live media?

The tech revolution has forever changed the way we work
The tech revolution has forever changed the way we work

It's time for clients and agencies to stop being creatures of habit, writes JR Little, strategy director, Carat Global Management.

In March 2012, I had the privilege to stand on the Economist Big Rethink Conference stage in London and assert, "Branding is Dead".

I use the word "assert" because at that time, I worked at a top branding agency and had few proof points to support my claim.

However, I had a gut instinct; I had noticed a significant change in the types of briefs we received from companies, and a change in the way branding agencies attempted to describe their business and offering.

We received few strategic briefs and our competitors were desperately trying to redefine how they describe branding. As much as branding agencies say that they are about more than logos, they are still, at the end of the day, largely about logos.

As a former-supposed senior-level brand strategist, I think it’s time clients are let in on two disruptive secrets: 1. Branding agencies are antiquated, and 2. Most marketers waste a lot of budget in the development stages of projects.  

After 15 years of trying to be more than logos and taglines in both advertising and branding agencies, I realized that branding was indeed dead, advertising was wasteful, and the traditional strategic communications ways of working should be rethought and reversed by putting media and tech relationships first. And those agencies and clients that embrace the disruption first, will stand out and prosper.

The most recent attempt of branding agencies to reinvent themselves is around the idea of user experience. However, this is just the most recent, and failed attempt to assert that branding is more than logo design.

The current user experiences or journeys that are designed by brand and advertising agencies are often a collection of re-skinned and disconnected touch points rather than an insightful look at the consumer journey.

Without a keen knowledge of the consumers’ media and technology behaviors, an agency has no ability to design a useful experience. In fact, the current user experiences or journeys that are designed by brand and advertising agencies are often a collection of re-skinned and disconnected touch points rather than an insightful look at the consumer journey.

There seems to be an assumption on the part of many agencies that the connection between the touch points will magically create an ecosystem that changes consumer behavior – this is a false hope. Note to all, the connections between touch points are now more important than touch points themselves; we are living in a hypertextual reality (eg, to share is more important than to simply see).

We’re all creatures of habit. And today’s strategic communications industry reinforces habit. It’s time that we on the agency side embrace disruptions like our clients. Since the launch of smart phones, complete industries have been disrupted - newspapers fall to Twitter, hotels shut because of Airbnb, new car sales decline because of Zip Car.

The tech revolution has happened and some long-established businesses as well as ways of working are now irrelevant. Therefore, it makes sense that some strategic communications businesses and ways of working are irrelevant as well. Do we need branding agencies anymore; what about advertising agencies?

Here’s my point, the strategic communications industry was designed to serve a communications environment that doesn’t exist anymore: TV, print, and in-store environments are not the centre of a user’s experience. As a matter of fact, the user experience has become a fragmented one where different devices compete for the user’s attention and the user’s attention span gradually decreases.

Social media and technology should have reversed the strategic communications development process by now. Yet, marketers all too often turn to old processes, methodologies and ways of working for new answers; they look to branding and advertising for the answers and expertise that only media and tech experts can provide. As a result, budget is wasted on an esoteric exploration of "big ideas", "essences", "taglines" and "logos" instead of investing in socially-connected technologies and content creations that their consumers want and love.

Here’s an epiphany for marketers: you are far smarter than you think and you can brand your own product or corporation.

Here’s an epiphany for marketers: you are far smarter than you think and you can brand your own product or corporation – download a book from Amazon, read it on your tablet, host a brain storm, test it with some groups, and save your budget 500K or more. And, your logo is fine.

Its time we rethink and reverse the ways of working. Traditionally, the branding agency would develop a poetic idea that was expressed in visuals and words, yet often too esoteric and hard to apply to the real world (eg, mood boards and brand essence). Then the traditional advertising agency would interpret the brand work for more immediate communications needs and business goals (eg, tagline and the overused big idea). Last, the media agency would be asked to simply buy the right spots (as cheap as possible) to show up in front of the consumer.

This one-way communications model and flow of work was highly effective when traditional TV, print and in-store environments were important consumer touch points, but those days are long gone. Today, content that is shared in real-time across tech is critical. Thus, the internal flow of work should be flipped from brand-ad-media to media-ad-brand. Understanding your consumers’ world, deeper motivations and daily behaviours should be the start, not the end.

I left branding and advertising after 15 happy years because I couldn’t affect the consumers’ real world. I witnessed esoteric brand thinking that was detached from the reality of how a consumer lives their life (does a consumer really want to think about the deeper meaning and brand purpose of toilet paper?)

Consumers are savvy; they know how branding works. Today, consumers want usefulness, entertainment or exquisite creations. And, the type of technology and media that they interact with everyday affects the tones, messages and behaviours that brands should exhibit. Let's use toilet paper as an example.

A traditional branding agency attempts to tell the client about the deeper purpose and brand essence of their toilet paper brand, whereas a media agency will tell the client that a consumer uses a smart phone every time they are on the toilet and often can’t find a clean toilet to use when away from home or work. If you listen to the media agency, you will spot an opportunity to differentiate. And before you know it, the realities of how consumers use toilet paper affect the ways you interact with them (media), the types of conversations you have become secondary (advertising) the characteristics of the pack come last (branding). Technology (eg, tablets) and tech companies (eg, Amazon) have shifted the retail shelf online. This means that companies must spend less resource on branding environments, and more on developing strategic content.

The flow of communications development is thus reversed. The consumers’ reality, finally and truly, is prioritised, and "your idea of what your brand should be" is secondary to the consumers’ needs and wants. After all, your brand has no value without a consumers’ renewed appreciation, everyday, and that’s something that even branding, advertising and media agencies can agree on. Who needs memorable experiences, when these can be placed in the consumers’ augmented new realities?

There is hope. It’s time that agencies divorce themselves from traditional titles like branding, advertising, communications, PR and media. Sure, these buckets make it easier to distribute industry awards in the South of France or collate and distribute conglomerates’ annual reports to shareholders around the world, but they are not in the best interests of clients or clients’ consumers.

These traditional industry models are a straight jacket; they are force fitting a new tech-savvy and socially-connected reality into old ways of working. Why can’t we have a new wave of agencies designed around consumer connections, human behaviour change, and content communications? The first clients and agencies to dare to flip the model on its head will stand out and succeed. Try putting media first, you might find that between yourself, your media agency and your consumer, you can find all the answers you need.

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