How important is it for brands to cultivate ‘inside’ consumers?
I think it’s incredibly important. It’s nothing new, but most companies have forgotten the role of their core group of advocates. Not everyone should be treated equally. I fundamentally believe that every brand should have its 114 seeders [as in the case of Apple]. The truth is that we don’t have a lot to say. We don’t stand for a lot and brands give people something to talk about. Religion is fading out to the point that brands are becoming the identity of what we stand for. In California, for example, you have a dating service for Apple fans. We’re seeing more and more people meeting through brands as a common denominator.
Explain in more detail the relationship between brands and religion.
Brands are becoming a substitute for religion. Religion often does not fit modern society because the format is simply not timely. The way its principles are communicated doesn’t fit with people’s mindset. Brands are just sexier. We also see a direct correlation between low self-esteem and addiction to brands. We don’t have a lot of self-esteem, so to compensate, so we buy brands. I’m not a huge fan of this [state of affairs], but it’s what we’re seeing nonetheless.
With brands rising to such heights, they would seem to have more responsibility to their consumers than ever. Brands love to talk about transparency, but are they matching that talk with action?
No, they are not. We’ve actually got to the point where brands have forgotten about the consumer. Eventually we’ll see the appearance of a Wikileaks for brands — they can no longer keep secrets. They really need to get their house in order. It’s not that they need to stop doing ‘ads’ altogether, but they do need to look at things in a different light. Companies say, ‘We have so much data about our consumers — is this right? Should we stop?’ My answer is no. But give those consumers a page where they can see what you know about them, or allow them to opt out. Or, show them the benefits of providing that data. That’s transparency. At the moment, consumers have no idea what companies know about them. Brands that are clever are implementing that kind of transparency. You have to act on it — be transparent on the downsides of your brand. Don’t pretend that chocolate cakes are healthy; write in big letters that they are fattening. People like companies that tell the truth. Brands that manage this well will have a huge competitive advantage.
Which brands do you think are ahead of the game in this respect?
One would be the Brazilian brand Natura. It’s most recent annual report started by saying ‘We’ve failed’. They had not met their environmental goals, and that was the focus of the report. I think this approach is one of the reasons that it’s among the world’s fastest growing cosmetics brands. It’s like the next generation of The Body Shop. But really, a lot of companies are just not there yet. The issue is that no one in marketing knows what ethics are. If you were to call the world’s top 50 marketing or advertising people and ask them to talk about ethics, I’m pretty sure you would get silence. It doesn’t exist in this industry but we can’t continue down this path — the consumer can shut brands out very quickly. Brands that don’t realise this will be caught with their pants down very soon.
Another word that is perhaps over-used is ‘engagement’. In all honesty, do you think the average person really wants to engage/interact with brands on a day-to-day basis?
No. They do for certain categories — what I define as brands with a holistic selling proposition (HSP). Brands that are like a mini religion, where you are not just buying a product but buying into a way of believing. Then, sure. But people don’t want be too involved with things like toilet paper. As a marketer, there is a good chance that you represent a category where it doesn’t sense to try and engage with people. In which case, don’t do it. Engagement is not necessarily a universal tool for every brand category. Then again, there are categories where there is huge potential for engagement where brands are not doing anything.
In your dealings with CEOs and marketers, what else do you tell them that they really don’t want to hear?
The first would be that they are wasting their marketing budget. I ask them what would happen if they cut it in half, and they invariably say it would result in disaster. Then they do it, and in fact they become better at marketing. Take the tobacco industry: the best thing that happened to it was that all advertising was banned. It forces you to find other [better] ways to secure share of voice.
The second thing is that great products and services should be developed in partnership with consumers and the marketing department. Just developing another flat-screen TV isn’t going to do it any more. But if marketing is involved [in the development], then there’s a good chance that the product will cater to an emotional need that the technicians have not thought about. Companies need to work together internally but they are not doing it. The different departments are enemies.
Thirdly, that they have lost touch with consumers. I spend 100 days a year in consumers’ homes. It keeps me in touch with reality and if I can do it, there is no excuse for marketers not to do it. Some of the biggest innovations come from this process. Instead, marketers buy reports. They think these hold the answers. They don’t. Spending time with your consumers gives you insights you will never learn from a report. After I’ve interviewed eight to 10 people [in a natural setting], I find I don’t need to talk to any more because I know they will all say something similar. It’s surprising how much you can learn. This also enables you to become good at seeing the unseen and decoding it.
Lastly, politics kill creativity. Use the consumer to remove politics. Bring the management team into the consumer’s home and you will find that everything they refer to afterwards will be based on that meeting or interview. The consumer can be used to reset people’s mindset. Too often, they forget who is paying their salaries.
Asia still tends to be less cynical towards brands than the West. What should brands here avoid to ensure consumers do not come to resent them?
The problem in Asia is that once a brand becomes successful and loved, it tends to sell out and flood the market. It should be almost the reverse. Keep an exclusive dimension. It’s important for brands to appear less desperate. They should also step up and become the front runners in terms of privacy. Even though people are not really talking about privacy at the moment, a bomb will eventually explode, and respect for privacy should be made part of a company’s DNA.
I would also say: treat Asian consumers as Asian and not Western. People have a different value set. It’s about time for companies to put a line in the sand and start from scratch, take an Asian point of view rather than a Western one. Those that do will gain market share and respect. It may cost a lot of money up front, but I think it’s worth it. Take China: housewives are more focused on sanitary issues than anywhere in the world, because infant allergy levels are extremely high. Insights like this lead to whole new product lines.
When it all goes wrong, how can a once-trusted brand regain that trust?
The most important thing is to understand who the seeders are. They are the most likely people to turn the brand around; they are like a safety belt. If you don’t know who they are, you already have a problem. Organisations need to become more nimble. Crises happen in terms of hours or days, not months. Yet organisations are led by compliance, with no flexibility built in. If a crisis happens, there’s a huge hierarchy to go through. Another point is to be aware of the need to create a balance between semantic markers — actions so dramatic that people will always remember them. People will always remember the BP disaster. The only way back is to create a positive semantic marker. If companies are not aware of this, they will constantly fight against a brick wall and never get the reaction they once had.
The article first appeared on Campaign Asia