Last week saw the very sad news that Judie Lannon, one of the pioneers of account planning, has passed away. WARC’s David Tiltman looks at why her thinking is as relevant today as it ever was.
Judie worked with WARC for many years, chiefly as the razor-sharp editor of Market Leader magazine, which we published with the Marketing Society. (I have fond memories of working with her on the title as a callow youth.)
Judie’s contribution to the ‘birth’ of planning in 1960s London was to launch the creative research team under Stephen King at JWT – you can read her recollection of that period here (it’s striking how issues like long-term versus short-term were being discussed 50+ years ago). Her experience then cemented her belief in the power of the brand and the importance of understanding the meanings associated with a brand: a point she made repeatedly was that manufacturers make products, but consumers buy brands.
It’s a topic as relevant today as it was then. I’ve been struck by the number of conversations I’ve had with clients where they’ve admitted the need to get ‘back to brand’. As recent research by the FT and the IPA revealed, there’s a distinct lack of confidence on how to do it after years of focus on performance marketing, aka ‘activation’.
So what better way to pay tribute to Judie than to resurface one of the final pieces she wrote for us – fittingly, on the changes and challenges facing marketers, and the enduring importance of brand meaning. There is no more elegant summary of the current state of the industry…
– David Tiltman, VP Content, WARC.
What do people do with advertising?
Some years ago, I wrote an article with the psychologist Peter Cooper that turned the conventional question about advertising effectiveness upside down. Instead of asking 'what does advertising do to people?', we asked 'what do people do with advertising?'
The assumptions behind the conventional question came from the traditional model of persuasive communications - AIDA: attention, interest, desire, action. In this model, the role of advertising was to catch attention, inspire interest that would lead to desire and, ultimately, action. The activity in people's heads was largely assumed to follow some kind of rational logic. Neuroscience has now largely discredited this model by emphasising the power of emotion (although the traditional model has remarkable staying power, despite all evidence to the contrary). But neuroscience still doesn't explain why some emotional response has the power to create brand value.
Looking at what people do with advertising, rather than what advertising does to people, leads to exploring the use/value people make of the meanings that brands have acquired in the course of their promotion - in those days, television advertising and largely visual print.
Turning the spotlight onto the meanings that brands carry also leads to a more anthropological framework, which worked particularly well for the brands I worked on in the early stages of my career. These were market-leading FMCG brands, which intuitive creative people had positioned in ways that were dense with cultural meaning - the Persil Mum, the After Eight dinner party, Lux film stars, Mr Kipling's traditional baking skills, and others like them.
Significantly, these brands were grounded in a stable British culture where gender roles, daily rhythms, recognised gift occasions, luxury and status markers were widely recognised across class and region. They carried these brands and others like them for decades because of the rich patina of recognisable culturally shared meanings.
The relationship of visual stimuli to FMCG is particularly significant. Blind tests regularly showed near parity of choice, compared with tests naming the advertised brand where preference was invariably much higher for the named brand. And, as often as not, these acquired meanings not only made brands instantly recognisable but, importantly, added value that ended up on the bottom line and acted as insurance in the inevitable cyclical recession.
The increasing understanding and measurement of brand equity that came in the 1980s further emphasised the importance of brand image and the meanings that images carry. Famous, widely recognised brands were able to compete successfully in this period, when retailer brands began to dominate in a number of FMCG categories. Weak, unfamiliar, low-awareness brands gradually were elbowed out by the retail giants, a process that has become even more ruthless today with the advent of discounters.
As the service culture became more evident, the behaviour of the service provider, the bank, the supermarket, the department store and the airline took precedence in contributing to the brand's image and meaning. Yet these brands also continued to advertise prominently on television.
Digital changes the conversation
Technology announced a new model of communication and a new set of conventional wisdoms. "Television is over," said the new voice of technology. Facebook and Google masterminded the new approach: personalised, customised, essentially private communication. The new mantra was 'right person, right message, right mood, and right time'. And customers were expected to value this in contrast to 'intrusive', untargeted, traditional television. So seductive is this notion that millions of pounds of the marketing budget were siphoned into the ever-expanding maw of the tech giants with the promise of more effective communication.
But digital activity, which we can call 'activation', only dealt with customer targeting. It had little to do with the process of brand-building. No one ever made such an exaggerated claim for direct mail as the tech giants made for digital messaging. Traditional direct mail was always a short-term tactical tool and digital messaging is much the same.
A changed landscape of cultural meanings
So what is to be done? Here we return to the importance of specific types of meanings and the need to see how meaning transfer is working in our much more complex and fragmented world. As always, we look at what national culture provides and how that culture is different from the stability of decades ago. Gender roles are fluid and class exists, but is more opaque. Rituals of daily life are fragmented and individual.
Add to this the relentless and constantly shifting growth of popular culture – not to mention the echo chamber of social media where everyone's opinion counts, if only to their friends. This is a messy world from which to draw established, lasting brand meanings of the sort we saw in the past.
But here is where a whole class of other meanings are to be mined which characterise our age with increasing insistence. A dominant feature of the millennial generation, which I believe will be carried with them through life, is a demand for social, moral and ethical purpose. We may be seeing increasingly programmatic (automatic) consumption but we are also seeing an increase in social (Dove), environmental (Innocent) and sustainable (Marks & Spencer and others) consumption, specifically chosen for social values. The important difference between these kinds of meanings and those of the long-distant past is that brand owners must behave consonantly with them.
Our age makes much greater demands on brand owners. Whether it is a concern for sustainability in a world of limited resources, for truthfulness in the face of deception or a longing for artisan craft and individualism in an age of mass industrial manufacture, consumers can now easily see through the PR and marketing hype. The sophistication that consumers bring to the marketplace also carries with it demands for transparency and for a closer relationship with providers.
These kinds of moral, social and ethical meanings are neither shallow nor transitory; they have depth and staying power. This is not to disregard the specific brand-related meanings that have been adopted by brands that suit their particular product sector – such as those adopted by Apple, Red Bull, Nike+, successful alcoholic drinks brands such as Johnnie Walker, services such as First Direct or Comparethemarket.com or retailers such as John Lewis or McDonald's. All have a mix of media but none loses sight of the essential brand and its unique meanings.
We are now in danger of having the worst of both worlds. Not only are cultural meanings less stable, less deep and less lasting, we have fallen for the notion that private messages are the secret of brand promotion.
Brands must have meanings that are shared or they are no more than bald products, destined to fall prey to the value extraction of price competition. And the challenge is not only to identify these meanings but to find ways of embedding them so they become public and widely recognised.
WARC subscribers can read the full piece here