Mark Morris – What’s on the Horizon and What Do We Do About It?

Mark R. Morris, Former Chairman, Bates North America

My take on a vision for advertising in 2020 may be a bit different than many others in this publication. I was an active participant on the agency side of the business for 36 years.  All of that time was spent with one agency, Bates Worldwide and its predecessor Ted Bates & Company Advertising.

Since leaving Bates in 2004, I have viewed, with great interest and respect, the significant changes taking place within the advertising business. The growing impact of digital technology, the proliferation of accessible touch points, the  increasing empowerment of the individual and his or her willingness to be engaged by advertising have all presented unprecedented challenges. I plan to leave pronouncements of what the advertising environment and landscape might possibly look like, in another 8 years time, to those “day to day” practitioners who today are actively shaping that future.

My contribution will be to urge leaders who will be responsible for navigating those ever challenging message delivery waters to ensure that their people understand the basic truths of creating effective communication. And, with that understanding, they employ those principles in ways best suited to each new medium effectively targeting them to the people who are to be exposed to and engaged at those many touch points.

I wish to weigh in on this topic because daily I witness a wealth of vague and meaningless communication. I also read and hear people in our industry explaining away this situation by “waving the white flag” with statements such as:

“”There are too many touch points to connect with today”, “Brands are too similar”, “ It’s more difficult to stand out”, “Persuasion is over… people won’t stand for it” , “Advertising is dead”, “ It’s no longer about selling..It’s about caring.”

I don’t happen to believe any of this is at the root of so much empty communication. Advertising has and will always be about selling. The way that selling gets done today and in the future may require engaging people in a more “caring” way,  but Clients still assign brands to agencies to have them help  generate sales.

The job of an agency is to interrogate a brand until it confesses to its strengths and to then drill down to understand what people are really interested in, want to talk about, what they value and what appeals to their sense of trust and honesty. Gathering that knowledge and those insights has and will continue to be the essential steps that provide the foundation for effective message creation.

As I was taught, there are no such things as parity brands….only parity claims and parity executions. Granted, the advertising world today is very different from the past and new approaches to message content and medium context must factor into all communication,  but the approach to a creative challenge should still have solid goals and objectives even though the delivery solutions can be radically different.

Regardless of the delivery vehicle, effective advertising is based on communicating relevant differentiation, motivation and persuasion. Rosser Reeves gave effective advertising a brand name, Unique Selling Proposition (USP)……a motivating idea, uniquely associated with a brand, to be registered in the mind of the consumer.

Unfortunately, Reeves philosophy, too often, became a style of advertising which resulted in repetitive one way messages of rational brand differences. Relegating USP thinking to a single executional style does great disservice to that seminal idea. USP is not a style; it is not a “cookie cutter” solution to a marketing problem. USP is a mental model approach to a creative assignment. A challenge to those charged with creating communications to search for things about a brand which, if effectively delivered to the right people, will help make that brand more familiar, more trustworthy and a source of relevant and differentiated experience.

We all know that people no longer accept interruptive one way repetitive “push” communication.  Today, leading creative thinkers believe that to be effective in connecting with people you need to tell them engaging and entertaining stories that they want to hear.

I don’t disagree with that at all. But, I believe  the purpose of those engaging and entertaining stories should still provide the listener with elements of  branded differentiation that are meaningful and responsive to what those people are interested in.

Storytelling moves communication from interruption to participation, from repetitive manipulation to value creation. People still want solid facts but today they choose to engage with a brand on their own terms. Therefore, if informational benefits are important to brand engagement, they must be exposed in the right context. Cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner said “A fact wrapped in a story is 22 times more memorable.” So, if a brand’s story contains facts that differentiate, it becomes essential for those facts to be delivered in ways that people are open to listening to.

How a brand makes one feel rather than what it does, an emotional proposition, can be just as effective a differentiator as informational content. A brand’s personality, image or delivered experience can be a powerful motivator. The key is that in crafting stories, with either informational or emotional content, the objective should be to stimulate a positive conversation about the brand. The goal is to make the brand the memorable take away not the story.

The basic tenants of USP thinking are touch point neutral and apply as a valid framework for the creation of effective advertising in any medium. There are some companies today who still do understand the power of finding a USP and driving it through their entire platform of communications. In 2008 IBM captured the anxiety of living in a time of turbulent change by seizing the high ground and inviting their customers to join them in “Building a Smarter Planet”. In a world that Thomas Friedman had said was becoming smaller, flatter and smarter, IBM positioned itself as offering more intelligent solutions, using data better and encouraging greater collaboration that would make the world work smarter. They have extended this differentiating USP into a comprehensive integrated campaign with a…”people for a smarter planet” profile on Facebook, a “smarter planet” blog, “smarter cities” events in Shanghai and even an on line game offering the experience “smarter IBM solutions” in a virtual world.

Whether it is WOM, a mobile application, social networking, digital, traditional, in store or in home, the purpose of advertising is to create a connection with a customer that generates and perpetuates the sale of a brand. Whatever the medium it’s still the message……that counts.

IBM is certainly not the only company who has taken differentiating their brand in meaningful and multi-platform campaigns to heart. Emerging companies, such as, Method (cleaning products) and Zappos (the on line retailer) also come to mind. But, the sad fact is that in too many marketing corners, selling has taken on a tarnished tone.

I refuse to believe that clearly communicating a brand’ difference doesn’t matter today and won’t still be as critically important in 2020. With the ever rising decibel level of marketing noise, continuing media fragmentation and audience distraction, brand differentiation will be even more relevant than ever.

The most important asset a company has is not their lineup of brands or their capital equipment; it is their customers. Acquiring those customers and nurturing deep and enduring engaged relationships with them is the responsibility of the marketer.  Teaching the principles of enduring effective communication to all who are charged with developing the brand differentiating messages that initiate those relationships will continue to be an essential responsibility of the leaders who will populate the advertising landscape in 2020.