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Memo to Brands: Surrender

Permission marketing has deteriorated into spam, TiVo is killing the 30-second ad, and no one trusts corporate America. Could there be a more challenging — and thrilling — time to work in marketing? Branding guru Laurie Coots doubts it.

Don’t kill your television. Just paralyze it. Choke off its influence, smother its authority, and reclaim control over your evenings, Saturday mornings, and bathroom breaks.

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That is the directive from TiVo central, where technology is rendering the 30-second television ad impotent. Empowered viewers armed with digital video recorders are zapping through Academy Award speeches, opening credits, and thousands of TV commercials — giggling all the way. And that is only the beginning of the end, says Laurie Coots, chief marketing officer at TBWA\Chiat\Day.

Disruptive advertising is on the way out. And replacing the one-way conversation of pop-up ads and radio spots will be a marketing dialogue between brands and consumers that crosses every channel and grows over time.

“Consumers have all the power now, and they want more from a brand relationship,” says Coots, who contributed a chapter to Beyond Disruption: Changing the Rules In the Marketplace (John Wiley & Sons, 2002). “Consumers only allow a small repertoire of brands into their lives, and they want the relationships with those brands to be meaningful. The stakes are a lot higher for marketers now.”

Still, most marketers don’t get it. They “cling to practices designed for an outdated scenario,” Coots writes in Beyond Disruption, arguing that most tools of measurement and acquisition “revolve almost solely around today’s volume moved and not tomorrow’s value created.” Branding is not about communicating a message; it’s about engaging in a relationship. And that isn’t easy, especially in a marketplace dominated by distrust, anxiety, and scandal. (Thanks again, Enron.)

Here, Coots outlines the biggest challenges facing marketers today and offers best practices from companies that are doing something right. Next month, she will explain how to build an engaging brand for hypervigilant consumers at Fast Company’s signature event, in San Diego: RealTime.

Permission Abuse

“The abuse of permission marketing is deplorable,” Coots says. “Marketers today are saying, ‘If you don’t explicitly deny me permission, that means I have free reign to bombard you with messages.’ But consumers are getting smart and shutting that down.”

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It is no longer enough for a brand simply to request permission from a consumer. It must also grant permission — invite consumers to tamper, tinker, and communicate with the brand any way they wish. That “requires the fundamental surrender of power from the company to the customer,” Coots writes. Marketers must relinquish control in order to perpetuate meaningful relationships.

“BMW is a really good example of a brand that knew itself well enough to hand over control to five very creative directors,” Coots says of the BMW films project that turned the advertising community on its head last year. “And BMW ended up with five pieces of entertainment that absolutely communicate the brand values without deteriorating into any silliness or craziness. It was a brilliant strategy.”

Another TBWA client, the Infiniti Division of Nissan North America Inc., engaged its consumers in a unique branding experience as well. In 1999, it launched a permission-based advergame called the I30 Challenge, which gave each player $29,465 (the value of a new Infiniti I30) in imaginary money to invest and manage over three months. The player with the highest-valued portfolio at the end of the game won a new I30.

“The longer someone played the game, the more likely they were to win, so it was a great way for Infiniti to communicate regularly and deepen its relationship with consumers,” Coots says. “The pay-off was great, but the responsibility was huge. If you deliver a game that’s uninteresting over time or that clashes with the brand identity, people will call ‘fraud,’ drop you, and never come back. You cannot violate their trust.”

Email Overload

“The days of the e-mail hyperlink quickie sale are severely numbered,” Coots writes, suggesting that spam may soon give way to smarter, more-targeted email communications. On Amazon.com, it already has.

A devoted Amazon shopper, Coots receives a weekly email from Bezos and Co. that recommends best-selling titles, hot new albums, and sale items that match Coots’s unique interests — as demonstrated by her past purchases. “It’s like having a friend who’s always looking out for you,” Coots says about the email dispatches. “Amazon feeds me the ability to support my interests.”

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Amazon provides a service to its existing customers by helping them stay on top of Stephen King’s growing repertoire and the official DVD release date of Gosford Park. It does not spam. It serves. And that makes all the difference in a world where the typical consumer receives 210 private email messages each month and trashes nearly every piece of digital marketing that he receives.

“Email will drop as an acquisition tool, but it will become an important loyalty tool — a way to keep customer relationships growing deeper,” she says. “If a brand holds up its end of the bargain by delivering value to its customers, those people will throw open their mailboxes. I think the power of email is still very much untapped.”

Broken Promises

Since September 11, distrust has dominated the travels, investments, and business interactions of most consumers. And woe is the company that gains a customer’s confidence and then betrays it by designing a bad product, releasing an offensive commercial, or shredding a truckload of evidence. Trust is the new currency — and no one is buying.

“More than anything, consumers believe they have to take to responsibility for their own choices and their own lives,” Coots says. “The want to be as informed as possible. And they are hypervigilant about the choices they make.”

That means a brand must deliver on all of its promises all the time and never forsake the identity that consumers know and trust.

Coots says Saturn Corp. understood that rule when it introduced itself as a different kind of car company a decade ago. In its advertisements and at its dealerships, Saturn vowed to revolutionize the auto industry. Remember the lovable mooch who hopscotched from one Saturn service center to the next to take advantage of free doughnuts and free checkups on his car? What about Judith Reusswig, the anxious owner who mailed a snapshot to Saturn so that assembly-line workers would make the perfect Saturn just for her?

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“Those commercials wouldn’t have worked if Saturn hadn’t followed through with results,” Coots says. “There is no room for disconnect between a brand and its pledge,” Coots says. “It is intolerable. It is unacceptable.”

Anni Layne Rodgers (arodgers@fastcompany.com) is the Fast Company senior Web editor. Learn more about Laurie Coots on the Web.

Sidebar: The TiVo Effect

Digital video recorders fundamentally change the way people view — and use — television. Services like TiVo transfer control from the networks to the viewers and render the 30-second ad spot powerless.

“As more people subscribe to TiVo, you’ll see more efforts to have brand character portrayed appropriately in programming,” Coots says. “I’m not talking about obvious product placement. I’m talking about infiltrating the story line.

“Think about the role FedEx played in Cast Away. Basically, Tom Hanks starred in that movie alongside a parcel company. The movie portrayed FedEx values by showing how hard it looked for him, how well it treated his family, and so forth.”

Television shows like All My Children have already begun to introduce real brands as real characters with personality and purpose. Coots expects that trend to continue to the point where Homer Simpson will someday purchase cases of Budweiser and Krispy Kremes at Apu’s 7-Eleven.

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“I don’t think advertising is dead,” she says. “But I do think that new, meaningful connections between brands and consumers will become an essential part of the equation.”

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