Vanella Jackson Global CEO Hall & Partners
Before joining Hall & Partners in 2004, Vanella had a successful 20-year career as an Account Planner in some of the world’s best advertising agencies including Bartle Bogle Hegarty, J Walter Thompson and AMV BBDO.
Sometimes in the marketing industry, we make things too complicated for ourselves – deliberately or unwittingly. Today it feels that we’ve been so consumed by the awesome promises of new technologies, that we’re prone to forgetting one of the essential truths about what it is we’re meant to do – build relationships.
Not just build them but nurture them, grow them, learn from them, fix them when they go wrong, celebrate them when they’re on the up. Among the many things that we do, relationship counsellor is one that I believe is the most important. To be the long-term strategist, the insightful, influential and honest link between brand and consumer.
The problem is that the digital tools which power that relationship-building have become as much of a hindrance as a help. Everything is conducted at such a breakneck speed with our attention always on the short-term gains, that the relationships we’re meant to be building often becoming more fractured.
Here are a few things I think we could do to help restore our status as brand relationship counsellors…
We’re bombarding consumers with thousands of ads a day, clogging up their inboxes and feeds with endless pop-ups and interruptions that, rather than appeal directly to people’s habits and behaviours, are simply creating more noise and clutter.
In theory, digital technology should enable us to build more intimate links between brands and their customers. However, we’re overusing these behavioural tools in an attempt to offer a more personalised experience without quite knowing how best to do so. We know you like cats so here’s a picture of a cat. And another, ad infinitum.
The answer is greater creativity. To focus on captivating material that reinforces or refreshes emotional engagement between brand and consumer. That uses technology but doesn’t necessarily rely upon it.
Technology has given us the ability to know everything at any moment but, in doing so, it’s led us to take our eyes off the long-term goals of brand building, regular engagement and sustained profit growth. Instead of the immediate uplift from promotional sales figures, we need to create proper relationships instead of just tactical in-the-moment ‘conversations’. The mistake some make is to judge success over the short term and then assume that it will be repeated over the long term.
Part of the solution is to create ‘experiences’ that have a longer-term goal than simply more sales this quarter. Consumers need to be advocates rather than occasional purchasers, particularly with the market more demanding than ever. Again, creativity is at the heart of what we need to do – not just numbers but experiences that display a brand’s credentials and reflect the beliefs and behaviours of customers. Perhaps offering unexpected gifts or fostering deeper relationships with key influencers which are seen as more authentic, drive more engagement and get more consumers to actually purchase the products influencers recommend.
Data enables us to change direction at speed as much as it can confirm and reinforce strategies. If something doesn’t work we change it rapidly. If the graph suddenly dips we shift focus. If sales don’t steadily grow we automatically reassess our strategies. For good or ill, we make up our minds with unseemly haste and then make them up all over again. Such reactivity can work but I sometimes doubt if speed of thought and action really nurture strong brand loyalties.
Instead of making and changing decisions with such rapidity – and often crossing our fingers hoping that they’ll work – we need to use data to look for more profound meaning, clues that allow us to better anticipate each other’s needs and desires. There’s meaning in data but it takes time to analyse it effectively – just because we can act swiftly doesn’t mean that we should. Otherwise, we’re in danger of creating false intimacy rather than enduring relationships.
We all know the fail-fast mantra by heart – test, learn, launch, relearn, relaunch. It worked well-enough for Silicon Valley, why not the rest of us? And it does, in part. But when it comes to global brand strategies, it’s also a huge if inexpensive (in the short term anyway) risk. Much more rewarding is to invest time, effort and resources into producing something entertaining and meaningful to audiences, not failing fast by adopting successive tactics. This is where authentic brand values are built – by planning ahead. Months ahead not just hours, as evidenced by many digital agencies. Great advertising used to do this – creative advertising not just data-fuelled concepts. So, yes, be disruptive but don’t forget the role of creativity in the relationship-building process.
Most digital campaigns are not focussed on building relationships and winning loyalty. By analysing digital behavioural data, brand activity becomes focused on short-term incremental gains based on sales figures not real emotional engagement or fulfilling experiences, fuelling the ad-blocking argument. It takes times to build empathy and intimacy, it can’t always be predicted and measured by algorithms. Just as in normal life, we need to build brand relationships by concentrating on intimacy and loyalty. It sounds rather old-fashioned for a new digital era but it’s true – old-fashioned brand building that leads to stronger relationship-building.
Sustainable growth requires more emotional investment than mere rational persuasion. It requires purpose, identity, a core idea around which a campaign can be built. If we really want to form strong relationships we can analyse the numbers but they’ll only tell us a certain amount. Much more effective – just like relationships – is to invest time, effort and courage into something more long-term. More instinctive. Perhaps even more human.