Oct 29, 2007

Marketing In The Time of Cholera

I’ve been thinking a lot these past few days about what our role is in the new world created by The Real Digital Revolution. That’s the world where consumers don’t rely on the bullshit we tell them to make their decisions, but rather go online and learn the truth for themselves.

In the old days, we could take whatever crappy product our client was pushing and somehow find a way to make it sexy. We’d invent a point of difference, and if we couldn’t do that, we’d invent an attitude. And it worked wonderfully for many, many years, allowing us to take a dangerous, poorly made car and make it a sexy, must-have sports car. Or portray a sugary brown carbonated beverage as a significant generational marker.

But those days are gone and what we have left is a world where experts and amateurs alike can join forces to tell the world what a piece of junk the sexy car is and no matter how “fun” and “viral” our ad campaign is, we can’t will all those nasty web pages to go away.

So what do we do at a time when the logical reaction is to tell our clients to either make a better product or not bother leaving the house at all?

More than anything, we need to be honest. To tell consumers the truth without bragging and with the realization that they’re going to fact-check us. So that lines like “it’s got the best rear bumper washing system of any car in its class” won’t cut it if that’s because it’s got the only rear bumper washing system of any car in its class because all the other cars in its “class” have bumpers that never need washing.

It means acknowledging that consumers have choices. And that our product is not the only game in town. It means admitting, if only to ourselves, that our competitors may have features some consumers find more appealing. And that there’s nothing we can do to convince them otherwise.

It means our brands need to start apologizing when something’s gone poorly, and then promise to try and do better. Because that’s the only way to silence all the critics, the ones who will howl loudly outside the window about our mistakes.

Finally, but every bit as importantly, it means acknowledging that we no longer control the conversation. That people will tell the truth about our products and that truth may not be what we want to hear. But we can no longer drown out their voices with the sound of our advertising.

The net result will be a new era of advertising that’s a whole lot more authentic. The good news is, it should also be a lot more fun.


raafi said...

While I agree that the empowered, informed consumer might find more reasons not to buy some overpriced hunk of metal from Detroit based on due diligence online. I don't necessarily take the leap of faith that the advertising world will come to the conclusion, as you have, that it needs to be more honest all by itself. Particularly if there are companies with good money to spend on advertising, and, regrettably, poor products to sell.

In either case, your second point -- that honesty opens the door for more engaging advertising -- I think is probably what consumers have always wanted from marketers. Of course Dudley Moore starred in a film about being just that type of creative. The title? Crazy People.

Alan Wolk said...

@Raafi. No leap of faith. I tend to agree with you on that: the ad world (and our clients) will realize that honesty is the only (rather than the best) policy when external forces force their hand - e.g. when sales start to plummet as a result on bad - and uncontrollable- PR online.

Anonymous said...

totally agree. the age of bullshit is over. BS flourished in the dark pre-internet days when ignorance reigned.

Anonymous said...

A bit tangental, but honesty must be balanced with what makes compelling advertising.

Axe clearly overpromises in its ads, but it is because they are so over-the-top, so clearly not showing the real product benefit that I (were I a fourteen year-old boy) would believe that I should probably get some because girls would like it.

As opposed to Magnetik hair gel that tells me the chemistry behind it but is so clearly over-promising and being serious about it that I am a complete disbeliever.

The car example is a good one, but in terms of deodorants, brand personality and target determine just how "honest" one has to be.