We live in a world of too much marketing and too much branding. People’s faith in advertising has fallen to new lows as we simply fail to engage with the claims advertisers make.
I think the humanity has been driven out of most branding programmes, replaced by an ever-growing list of clever-sounding jargon and “tools” designed to manipulate rather than engage with consumers. It’s time to put human passion back.
Many fundamental principles of marketing and branding would be regarded as deeply dysfunctional in person-to-person relationships.
Here are a few examples
Marketing shibboleth: “Put the customer first”
Therapeutic interpretation: A wife who always puts her husband first (or vice versa) is likely to have a deeply unhappy marriage. Oddly both partners will be unhappy because none of us really enjoy the company of sycophants (even though a lot of brand managers spend their time in the company of such people).
At extremes, in relationships this leads to battered spouse syndrome.
Or both partners may try to constantly please the other and neither find out how to satisfy themselves. This leads to dull marriages that end in affairs.
The general label for this kind of behaviour in real relationships is co-dependency
Marketing shibboleth: “Differentiate or die”
Therapeutic interpretation: Branding puts far too much effort into differentiation. But this is simply another way of being co-dependent, because we allow our identity to be dictated by others.
An individual whose main purpose is to be different often wastes energy on pointless cosmetic changes instead of realising that the easiest way to be different is to be true to yourself. Many brands lack any sense of purpose which can be the key to standing out. This is manifestly the case with banks like Barclays with its absurd giantesque advertising with Anthony Hopkins.
Marketing shibboleth: “Consistency of presentation is vital”
Therapeutic interpretation: It’s absurd that companies produce multi-volume manuals to control the exact colour scheme for their logo. This is like the dysfunctional adolescent who is obsessed with appearance to the point of bulimia or anorexia. Instead of building self-esteem, they undermine it.
And no sensible employee wants to be guided by a rule book, they want to be inspired by example. Presentation is completely secondary to behaviour, as the British Airways tailfin and Consignia examples demonstrate.
An approach based on more human principles would favour authenticity over perfection. It’s also likely be more effective: as we are constantly bombarded by marketing claims, our willingness to believe them decreases. The solution of many marketers is to seek out ever louder or more intrusive creative work, but in a “tragedy of the commons” this solution makes the underlying problem even worse. The truly distinctive choice is to reduce the hype and increase the honesty.
The low-cost airlines have been big beneficiaries of cutting through this nonsense with under-promise. They are (relatively) cheap and offer a matching level of service. Easyjet seems to revel in the ITV series which frequently demonstrates its human shortcomings. With no investment in CRM and frequent-flyer pseudo-loyalty, they seem to have created a more realistic relationship with customers. Of course, Southwest airlines takes the biscuit for no holds barred self-mockery. After a bumpy landing, the flight attendant announced: “We ask you to please remain seated as Captain Kangaroo bounces us to the terminal.”
Such straightforwardness makes perfect sense in our personal lives: none of us would be long attracted to a friend who spoke of himself in the same narcissistic language as many advertisers. Likewise, if we formed a relationship with someone who claimed their life would be dedicated solely to our pleasure we’d be wise to expect some serious problems down the line.
In a network economy of great transparency, all marketing rests on a series of real human conversations and relationships. These more authentic relationships must start inside organisations.
In praise of “negative” emotions
Bad news: if you want passion in your organisation, you can’t pick and choose what form it takes. You might get laughter but you might also get tears; you may get enthusiasm but you’ll also have to deal with anger.
I remember taking part in meetings to steer a £30m two-year branding project in which everyone was very polite. One day, a skirmish broke out as someone (me) started to openly criticise some of the work. Arguments broke out, until the brand director intervened and expressed his disappointment that the normal spirit of teamwork seemed to have failed us.
Of course the “normal spirit of teamwork” was code for a spirit of denial, where doubt and challenge were suppressed in favour of the illusion of unanimity. As the cause of the skirmish, I soon found myself marginalised from the process. One participant subsequently revealed his strategy at these meetings: to sit there and not allow the wrenching of their stomach to manifest in any discussions.
And the inauthenticity of these meetings resulted inauthentic marketing to consumers. This campaign, which shall remain nameless, is without question one of the most spectacular rebranding failures of modern times, and was canned by its financiers after two years of negligible results.
Yet the teamwork exemplified is exactly the type that many businesses inculcate. (A friend recently told me that at Hewlett Packard there was something called the “Hewlett Packard Yes”: which meant the passionless assent of people unwilling to state their real views.)
Play to human strengths
What’s needed is a balancing intervention in favour of practices and ideas that play up to our human strengths. Perhaps foremost among these are techniques from the world of Improv theatre, as well as some tools from psychotherapy. These techniques focus attention on what creates real satisfaction in human relationships.
For example, I recently worked with a niche furnishing brand. I was asked to help the sales team become more effective but quickly discovered a series of misunderstandings and anxieties between them and management. I started using a simple concept created by family therapist Virginia Satir. Called a temperature reading, it is designed to help couples or teams to actually examine the nature of their relationship by going through a simple and consistent agenda.
The starts with appreciations, and works its way through new information, puzzles, complaints with recommendations to wishes and hopes. Without going into detail, this relationship tool allowed all concerned to give voice to deeply felt but as yet unexpressed needs and concerns – many of which could be easily resolved one exposed to daylight. None of which were emerging in conventional daily meetings.
Another powerful tool is Improv. Actors in Improvisational Theatre have learnt how to create compelling scenes totally spontaneously, with no script. In doing so, they have inadvertently stumbled on principles that are a powerful antidote to the prevailing mentality that stifles the power of the human spirit in organisations.
Get businesspeople playing a few of the warm-up games that Improv actors play and strange things happen: the energy level of the group rises and often laughter bursts out. Gradually, people get better at creating greater spontaneity in their communications and their emotional state changes. They start to experience the power of (forgive the jargon) co-creativity.
For example, take a game called One Word Story. A group of players make up a story, where each can only contribute one words at a time, in a circle. After a few stumbles, most story circles start producing funny and satisfying stories, yet no-one is really in contr
ol and everyone must acknowledge that they have contributed to the outcome. Arguably the holy grail of team building, within minutes of first trying. And people can be encouraged to ask: what if my working relationships and meetings could be more like this?
Relationship thinking starts to undermine the fundamental economics of brand consultancies and ad agencies, which depend on claims to control and manage relationships on behalf of their clients. What’s needed is an approach based on facilitation, rather than agency; a style that relies on improving the quality of human contact to allow participants to access more of their innate resources for connecting – instead of claiming to do it for them.
As Alan Mitchell points out “The counter-intuitive effect of the information age… is to shift the focus of value from financial or industrial wealth to human wealth; to search for competitive edge by unleashing the full potential of people assets rather than thing assets.” (Alan Mitchell, Right Side Up).
If you want your brand to be truly engaging, you have encourage some unleashing!