Doug Levy, CEO, MEplusYOU
What could/should advertising look like in 2020?
To understand where advertising is headed, you have to understand the path it has taken.
From the very earliest, we are taught by our parents and society the difference between good and evil. To never cheat, never lie, never manipulate. We are taught these staples for 18 years.
Then one day, we go off to college. Because it seems more lucrative than fine arts or history, and not as god-awful boring as finance, we decide to study advertising and enter the business. We spend four years learning the landscape of advertising and marketing.
Four years unlearning every lesson our parents instilled in us. We learn how to convince people to buy what they don’t need. We are schooled in strategic manipulation, in provocative ad campaigns, and in persuasion and flattery.
All because we’re still entrenched in a world bogged down by the Consumer Era. Get to know the target audience and then give manipulating them the old college try. The Consumer Era is over. It’s no secret that big advertising budgets will result in returns, but that the current world of advertising is impacted by the law of diminishing returns.
Exxon Mobil, Citibank, and AT&T Wireless spend over two billion dollars a year in advertising. Type “I love Exxon Mobil” into your search bar and watch your search wizard struggle to come up with 1,500 results. Don’t even bother with the other two.
Try “I love Zappos,” and be prepared to comb through two million pages of sheer brand adoration.
The Consumer Era is fraught with pitfalls. The cost of reaching consumers with advertising is rising unsustainably, even as consumer tolerance decreases. Additionally, companies must conduct themselves scrupulously, because thanks to the Internet and an explosion of technology, the whole world is watching. The rise of social connectivity means that one consumer’s experience can destroy a company’s image—and billions in advertising—in a single blow. Finally, consumers are indicating that trust now frequently trumps even quality and price.
For all this doom and gloom, however, the future of advertising has a surprisingly rosy future.
It’s called the Relationship Era. To usher in the Relationship Era, which some companies have already begun to do with unprecedented success, a new mindset is in order. Marketing is no longer about manipulation. On the contrary, there is no faster way to guarantee failure. The Relationship Era is about authenticity, trust, and relationships, and a purpose helps facilitate these goals. One of its paradoxical discoveries is that companies who care about something beyond selling their products actually do sell more of their products.
And though this may sound like the woo-woo language so beloved by self-help books, it isn’t. The Relationship Era requires a shift of thinking, and general requirements: ethical conduct, seamless customer relations, and constant contact and cooperation.
Everyone knows the companies like Zappos.com and Southwest Airlines have experienced blockbuster success with their Relationship Era-style marketing, but do you know the story of Wimpy?
The South African burger chain, Wimpy, exhibited Relationship Era thinking when they spent time and funds simply to give 15 people a laugh. It all started with the introduction of Braille menus for the visually handicapped. Their ad agency baked 15 hamburger buns with sesame seeds spelling out a greeting in Braille. The burgers were served at organizations for the blind, where the recipients were so amused they spread the word via Braille newsletter and online channels to 800,000 others.
A small, sincere action, snowballing into something great. In the Relationship Era, sincerity will buy you much more than massive media budgets.
Relationship Era practices fuel astonishing results. Companies like Patagonia and Seventh Generation are bringing attention to their causes via marketing that jibes with their purposes. In short, the Relationship Era applies to all companies, big or small.
By 2020 we will have entered a new era in which I believe companies that do business using a Consumer Era “marketing as manipulation” mindset will become irrelevant and superseded by companies that demonstrate a Relationship Era mindset.
As forces at play lead the Relationship Era to the tipping point of wide acceptance, I believe that marketers will be known not as the scoundrels who spin but rather people with the greatest expertise in crafting authentic relationships—and adding the most value to the business.
Though these principles are not yet commonly practiced in the halls of business power, they stem from lessons we learned as children. Remember the values your parents taught you those first 18 years, and use the insights you now have to lead in the Relationship Era.
What should we do now to get ready for that future?
In order to prepare for the Relationship Era, a little soul searching is required.
What is your company’s purpose? This isn’t a quick answer, and it’s no snappy slogan. To discover a brand’s purpose, brand stewards must delve into what motivates them, and what role they see for the goods they put out in the world. For example, the furniture giant IKEA states its purpose is to “create a better everyday life for the many.” Of course, others could state that as their purpose, too; this isn’t positioning, and the goal is not differentiation. A purpose need only be overarching and true.
The Relationship Era, and its extraordinary results, is built on trust. Companies still stuck in the mire of the Consumer Era often make the critical mistake of thinking of trust as just another mechanism for influencing transactions. They view it as a means to an end, and many squander it as quickly as it accumulates.
According to a Nielsen survey, 92 percent of people trust personal recommendations, but only 29-47 percent trust advertising. Customers trust personal recommendations because they are founded on relationships. By operating in the Relationship Era, companies develop deeper relationships with their customers, relationships that result in high levels of trust—and transactions.
Doug Levy (Wharton ’95) is the CEO of MEplusYOU, a leading strategic and creative agency, and co-author of Can’t Buy Me Like: How Authentic Customer Connections Drive Superior Results (Penguin, 2013).