Is it inward contemplation or outward relevance that drives growth?
Brand navel-gazing is exactly that – an inward preoccupation with your product and business advantages. With consumers increasingly objecting to anything that looks and sounds like overt product selling, is it time for a new model?
The historical approach tends to repeat…
When I started in the agency business in Seattle, my first formal account assignment was a regional packaged foods company named Nalley’s. I was to take over the account for a senior agency team member who was moving over to handle a new client. During our first formal visit the hand-off occurred, and I found myself meeting with the four brand managers who ran chips/snacks, canned meals, dressings and pickles, respectively.
At each meeting the client’s marketing executive provided a brief of the business, describing the strategic features, benefits and advantages of their products over competitive offerings. Of course my job was to creatively, persuasively communicate those points of difference to consumers.
This feature and benefit briefing was a staple of how things operated in almost every business category the agency served.With virtually every client there was a laser-like focus on recipes, technologies and operational achievements. As such, plans would always spring from this information, often matched to various forms of testing designed to determine which claim would be most memorable and compelling to the target audience.
In the business of building businesses, companies expend great effort to refine their products and operations, as they should. The goal of course is to stay ahead of the competition and achieve some measure of superiority and differentiation. The marketing team looks to these achievements as evidence of compelling reasons for selecting and buying.
- This system, which is pervasive across so many divergent business categories, tends to reinforce a point of view that marketing is on the right track when it focuses the product features/benefits; so carefully created and packaged.
After all, an organization’s systems and activities are engaged in constant improvement and refinement so this effort tends to inform the strategy!
Executives believe this data ladders up to the formula for driving growth and expansion. More specifically, when an editorial story or advertisement messages around these advantages, benefits and formulation improvements, we reflexively believe this argument forms the basis of brand preference.
We know more today about how people actually operate
Except for one thing. We’ve learned people are not analytical, fact-based decision- making machines. Humans are irrational creatures driven instead by feelings and emotions, often without self-awareness that this is how everyone behaves.
However we like to think of ourselves as logical, thoughtful analysts who carefully consider the facts, weigh the merits and then decide. In reality, we are steered by how we feel in the presence of a brand or business. It is emotion that informs actions. Yet so much of what goes into the crafting of communication is based on analytical backgrounding and introspective messaging.
When I got married 22 years ago, I went from dating to the altar in 12 months. It was truly one of the best decisions I ever made. So, was the move to propose founded on a conscious consideration of the personal pros and cons, the facts of my intended’s upbringing and family history, education and career prospects? Heavens no! It was how I felt about her. I knew in my heart of hearts she was the one. It was a powerful, visceral sense of love, passion, rightness and earnest conviction.
My subconscious brain knew more about the salience and relevance of this relationship than any fact-based roll-up of so-called “features.” In all cases, all of the time it is heart-over-head. We are feeling creatures that think and not the other way around.
How does this manifest in communication?
Emergent’s stellar pet food client, Champion Petfoods, makes some of the finest pet food on earth. You could fill volumes on the details underneath their formulations that ladder up to optimal nutrition for dogs and cats.
It is easy to become pre-occupied with the analytical facts of proteins, vitamins and minerals served in a bowl. We know the anecdotal stories of transformation and change in pets’ lives from eating these foods. The improvements to their health, wellbeing and happiness are far more persuasive through the emotional voices of loving pet parents than any fact-based presentation of formulation and protein ingredient percentages.
Stop focusing inwardly
So what does this mean? In order to achieve consumer engagement we must thoroughly, fully understand the interests and aspirations of those with whom we hope to communicate. We need to get underneath what matters to them and how the client’s brand can operate in making their lives better.
The brand must operate in service of a deeper meaning than just commerce. How can we improve the customer’s life; how do we add value and become an enabler of things they care about?
We must actively mine the emotional turf that resides under what people want and care about. In the case of pets, we know that food quality is linked to a sense of welfare and wellbeing for cats and dogs. The higher quality of food purchased is an expression of how much people love their pet. The emotional grist lies in the relationship and companionship with pets, and a desire that our four-legged family members remain happy and healthy.
Marketers can trumpet statistics on protein contributions and the role of nutritionally dense ingredients to delivering what dogs and cats require. In doing so the brand may have missed the bond, the relationship, and yes, the love being expressed and the importance of this dynamic to happiness.
- Our actions are influenced by how we feel; how we resonate to the brand and our sense of comfort and trust in it. The facts and figures exist only in support of the emotional narrative.
The litmus test for effectiveness
Here’s how to judge the merits of communications plans and proposals:
First, is there an assessment and review of the consumer – their wants, needs, dreams, aspirations and lifestyle interests? This is what is meant by putting the consumer first – insight on their interests that informs go-to-market strategy.
- Question number one: has effort been made to draw linkage between what we know about the consumer and how the brand and business can become a partner and enabler of those lifestyle needs?
- Has messaging been constructed around breathing life into emotional cues that hold up a mirror to how the consumer wants the world around them to perceive who and what they are?
- Have we looked at the cultural symbols relevant today for what consumers expect and want? Are those symbols showing up in the communication we produce?
- Are we creating synergy across all touch points from store to online to package to media to social channel?
- Are we tugging on the heartstrings? Are we keyed into the central motivation for why people want things, and the desires they have for a higher quality life?
If we wish to communicate in a way that’s understood and appreciated by the sub-conscious brain it will involve emotional cues. The facts and figures operate as reinforcement for ‘why’ we made a good decision post-purchase.
Moving from brief to resonance
So, instead of marching every marketing conversation down the hall of inwardly focused feature and benefit briefs and documents about technologies and product superiority, we should firstseek to understand the hearts and passions of those we wish to engage.
This is fundamentally a call for more (better) research: the kind that uncovers what makes customers happy; what they seek for fulfillment; where the pain points are; what they aspire to be – and then work creatively to create linkage between what we learn and how the brand is an active participant in achieving those goals.
- This is how we earn permissionfor a meaningful relationship and how the emotional fabric is knit that leads consumers to brand trust and purchase. The operational and technical savvy is what delivers satisfaction with product experience, and thus powers a repeat purchase.
I get wistful at times thinking if we had known back in the day what we know now about how human beings operate — our strategies would have been much different, probably more powerful and effective.
While we can’t go back in time and make corrections we can carve a new path to victory; one based on putting the consumer at the center of planning strategy. This is harder than it looks because the inward focus on product features and technologies is ingrained in business cultures big and small.
But times have changed and what do we now know?
If you don’t change with the times, you’re probably in trouble.
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Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, the healthy living agency. Emergent provides integrated brand strategy, communications and insight solutions to national food, beverage, home and lifestyle companies. Emergent’s unique and proprietary transformation and growth focus helps organizations navigate, engage and leverage consumers’ desire for higher quality, healthier product or service experiences that mirror their desire for higher quality lifestyles. For more information, contact Bob@Emergent-Comm.com and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.