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Why great brands are not built with words

Opinion, 26 May 2017
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Gareth Kay argues that words will never do justice to the best that our brains can create. So it’s time to think less verbally and think more expansively about how marketing communications can work.

Regina Dugan is the head of Facebook’s new, and highly secretive, Building 8. At this year’s F8, Facebook’s conference for developers, she asked a provocative question: what if you could type directly from your brain? Regina’s argument is based on the understanding that speech, essentially, is a compression algorithm. And a rather lossy and rubbish one at that.

The human brain has around about 86 million neurons which can fire a thousand times a second. This means the brain can process and produce about one hundred terabits of information every second. That’s the bandwidth equivalent of the entire global internet just five years ago, inside each of our brains. Remarkable power and potential that faces a problem: we tend to have to use verbal language to get that information out into the world. Normal speech patterns transmit about one hundred bits of information every second, the bandwidth equivalent of a 1980s modem. Essentially, humans have to try to force their high-powered, high-potential processing down fixed copper telephone lines. Compressed thoughts, no matter how well expressed, lose their richness as a result.

This understanding is leading the Building 8 team to investigate the potential of using our brains to directly control computers. It’s nowhere near as revolutionary or clever, but this understanding of the lossy nature of verbal information is something we forget about far too often when developing marketing where the message still reigns supreme.

Despite all our learning about how the brain works, and the learnings we have from evolutionary biology about how we communicate, we still tend to default to a simplistic and wrong view that it’s the message that matters. We reduce brands to a single word. We obsess about the thing we need to say. We boil down any communications challenge to finding the most efficient way to deliver a piece of information we think is important to a group of people we have determined to be the most receptive. We monitor success by looking at how many people can play back the main message to us.

No matter how evocatively we write our words, they lose their richness when compared to what our brains can process. So, it’s time for a reminder to all of us to think less verbally about the work we do (which as a planner runs counter to pretty much all we’ve been trained to do) and to think more expansively about how marketing communications can work.

First, we have to remember that the ability to entertain comes before the information it needs to carry. This simple truth lay at the heart of the best work to emerge from BMP. The long-running PG Tips campaign enabled the brand to maintain its volume share and 35% price premium in the face of cheaper branded and own-label offerings over the course of three decades. It didn’t do this through its message (a generic one about the best-tasting tea) but through a creative vehicle that was distinctive, engaging and entertaining. It sugar-coated the message so in the back of your mind you remembered PG Tips was the best-tasting tea when you went shopping.

Second, great brands are built on the associations they create and reinforce, across touchpoints and over time. Nike has built associations around innovation, and athletic performance through ‘information light’, association-rich advertising, digital services like Nike+, and dramatic demonstrations, from Run London to its latest initiative to break the two-hour marathon barrier. Powerful and distinctive associations and feelings lie at the heart of the brands that influence culture.

Finally, great brands understand that their marketing communications need to act as a signal to others. As a result, it’s their behaviour rather than the message itself that matters. In some cases, these signals can be of trust (as Rory Sutherland puts it, “we send wedding invitations on gilt-edged cards, and not by email, precisely because the expense of doing so signals our commitment to the union”). But in many cases, these signals tend to be of social proof. For all the beautiful work for the iPod that was supported by millions of dollars globally, its most powerful piece of communication lay in the thing the advertising highlighted – the white earbuds. This became a cultural and social signal of a new, more joyful way to listen to music.

Entertainment. Emotional association. Behavioural signals. Three things far richer than verbal information will ever be. So when you write your next marketing plan or brief, let’s not forget this. Let’s think more richly than how to transmit information.

About the author

Gareth Kay is co-founder at Chapter, San Francisco - a creative company dedicated to solving problems facing pioneering businesses. A strategist by trade, his previous agencies include Zeus Jones and Goodby Silverstein & Partners.

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