The Warc Blog

The Warc Blog

Pop, Politics and Empty Promises

10 years ago a new generation of Challengers began to shake things up in the brand world, not just by offering us their home grown products or services, but also by sharing with us their own personal beliefs, setting out a cause they were championing or an established set of rules that they were challenging. They were truly brands on a mission. And it was these personal beliefs and causes that gave last decades’ Challengers an advantage over many long established brands bound by their own corporate thinking and conventional behaviour. In fact so huge was the success of this first bunch of belief driven brands that recent years have seen many wannabe Challengers desperate to tell us that they too are believers.

So for this month I’ve been doing a bit of thinking about some things I’ve noticed recently – just stuff I’ve read, heard and watched – that has made me ask questions about how Beliefs are being used (and sometimes misused) today and how we might sharpen and utilise our own beliefs better in the future.

Pop, Politics and Empty Promises
There was a woman singing in my car the other night. She was called Gabriella Cilmi and she was singing a song called ‘I’m on a Mission’. She sang these words over and over again.

I am a woman on a mission.
Nothing can stop me I’m stronger than ever and I’m going to see this through.
I’ll never give up. Whatever it takes I’ll do what I’ve got to do.
I’m a woman on a mission.
On a mission.
Woo hoo…

Every now and then she added variations such as ‘I’m going to prove it/show it/take it/make it’ and the like.

The song made me want to be a little bit sick in my own mouth. First I put this down to a screechy voice and the smell of petrol but as I listened and waited to find out what mission she was on, what she was fighting for, why and against whom, I realised her mission was just to be on a mission. Yes on watching the video on YouTube this morning I see that she did find a wobbly white tightrope in space to walk along, a sparkly triangle, a crash helmet and a few nice outfits but I think all this was just happy circumstance along the way.

Silly. Yes. It means nothing. But that’s just it, I’ve noticed this a lot recently – meaningless missions – and not just in crap pop lyrics but right across our cultural, corporate and political landscape. People and organisations that have embraced the ambition of the Cause without signposting a clear purpose or direction, brands that have sufficiently caught onto Challenger thinking to have ‘bought in’ to the importance of saying they Believe without really committing to any defining principles.

In the UK right now our very lack of government reveals how critically underwhelmed and confused the British electorate were by the three main Party pitches which all included the promise that each was the only Party built on genuine beliefs and with a cause worth fighting. Unfortunately for us voters, they never quite got around to sharing with us exactly what those beliefs and causes were and why they were different and distinct from each other. They just hoped that telling us they had ‘principles’ and a ‘plan’ would be enough. We will no doubt discover their genuine beliefs and the causes they intend to fight in due course now that the decisive moment to ‘choose’ is past.

Number 1 thought from Pop and Politics:
So what? Well I guess saying you believe is like saying you talk, it’s a given. It’s the content that matters. So the important thing is to ensure your beliefs are not just genuinely held and that they do indeed fuel a particular cause, but that you clearly communicate exactly what they are when you actually have an audience.

‘I Believe in a New Marketing Language’
I’ve also noticed this month that there are plenty of brands that simply borrow the language of ‘beliefs’ as a more personal and passionate way to communicate the same basic product information. So having bought a baguette at Brighton station on the weekend the company providing me with my cheese and tomato nourishment tells me ‘We believe in freshness’. Although I’m relieved to see they don’t believe in ‘gone-off-ness’ this communication really isn’t telling me anything new. It’s just an emotional commitment that now replaces the old style, functional promise that said ‘we only use fresh ingredients’.

This kind of adopted language has no real meaning or value. As not only is this a misinterpretation of what a belief is (as if there are any people out there who actually deny and challenge the very existence of ‘freshness’) but critically it also has the potential to undermine rather than strengthen the brand proposition. This belief in ‘freshness’ becomes a preference for freshness without the clearly stated promise that every product is actually made with 100% fresh ingredients.

So Two thoughts from platform Four:
1. Make sure your belief is actually a belief and not a non-debatable fact or state of existence. By definition there should be people in the world who don’t believe as you do.

2. Make sure the beliefs that are going to define your future behaviour actually help to strengthen and improve your current commitments rather than weaken them.

We’re All Individual
Of course there are many brands that go further than stating an unidentified mission, than simply inserting the word ‘belief’ into their existing communication and instead actually express beliefs and commitments that can be correctly defined as a philosophical principles and causes that engage with us, above and beyond what a product or service promises. There are plenty would-be Challenger brands that are very clear about these beliefs. And more importantly 22 of them told me what they were this morning though my television. In just under an hour’s telly, 22 brands collectively told me they believed in – the power of imagination, individuality, spontaneity, freedom and play. These brands project these beliefs in the hope that they resonate with our own and help to build lasting relationships and where we genuinely feel a connection or are provoked to question then we do indeed engage. So a yogurt can express certain beliefs about motherhood and a car about freedom and we respond ‘oh yes I really should let my 4 year old climb that slide as part of his growth and development, stop being so panicky and buy some yogurt’ or question ‘why do I let the chains that bind hold me back and do I need a new car if I’m going to take on that mountain?’

And so I notice two connect things. I can’t remember which of the yogurt or car brands were actually making that connection with me. This is because the brands are all communicating the same, positive, acceptable and totally expected beliefs according to the product or service they are trying to sell me. It is like each category has been playing Beliefs Bingo using a very small pool of acceptable words in order to come up with their communication briefs. So all car ads are about freedom, all hair colour about individuality, all children’s products about imagination and I can’t remember which is which. Of course this is understandable. Your beliefs should always be true and appropriate to your experience in order to connect with your offer and your audience. But for your beliefs to help define you as different and help you to drive decisions that will set you apart, it is important that you chose to communicate beliefs that say something different.

A Good Point From Python:
All this just reminds me of that great moment in The Life of Brian when the disciples decide and decree in unison ‘We are all individual’. Only one brave and brilliant bloke, says quietly ‘I’m not’. Clever, funny and true. There are those beliefs that every category shares. The important thing is to identify which beliefs set you apart?

Dare To Be A Daniel
Finally, I’ve just finished reading an autobiography by my friend and hero Tony Benn. The title of his book is taken from perhaps one of the most famous stories in the Bible about Daniel in the lion’s den, a story that pretty much sums up Tony’s approach to life and politics. And there is of course much we can learn both personally and professionally about living according to our personal beliefs, the responsibility we have to speak up and the role we need to play to ensure our principles aren’t passively held but actively used to fight for the causes that we believe in. But I think for those of us individuals, organisations, companies or campaigners who need to think and behave like Challengers today the learnings from this book are best expressed in the first verse of this poem by Philip P. Bliss, reprinted in full in the text.

Dare to be Daniel
Dare to stand alone!
Dare to have a purpose firm!
Dare to make it known.

That pretty much sums it up for me actually.

Olivia Knight works for THE CHALLENGER PROJECT from eatbigfish’s London office.

Subjects: Brands, Marketing

14 May 2010 11:51

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