Brands need to be more Superman and less Clark Kent

Brands shouldn't focus too much on being 'human'
Brands shouldn't focus too much on being 'human'

With ad spend finally up to a record high brands need to make sure they are spending like a superhero, rather than focusing on being too human, says Emily Fairhead-Keen, business director at MEC.

‘Superhuman’ in this context doesn’t mean saving the world. It is about delivering the extraordinary through fiction, performance and control, and avoiding the pitfalls of trying to be ‘human’

With the news that UK advertising spend is its highest on record, are brands investing in their image and their marketing in the right ways? As much as we should pop the champagne corks at the good news, it raises the crucial question of what brands should be doing with their spend as budgets improve.

Being human

The overwhelming trend at the moment is how to make brands more ‘human’. Brands beg for love and attention: ‘like me’, ‘engage with me’, ‘please play with me’. Whilst this doctrine can work for some brands and some categories – new brands like Jack Wills and Patagonia build brand myths using transparency to enhance their story – and where brands actually have sexy underwear worth seeing underneath, it isn’t the ultimate solution.

Instead, the solution lies in a shift away from this rather lily-livered behavior.

Ditch the glasses, put on the spandex

Brands should have the confidence to be ‘Superhuman’, to stand for what they are and deliver this in a way that astounds and entertains. They need to be less Clark Kent and more Superman.

‘Superhuman’ in this context doesn’t mean saving the world. It is about delivering the extraordinary through fiction, performance and control, and avoiding the pitfalls of trying to be ‘human’.  Here are some core steps to becoming ‘Superhuman’:

1 - Create extraordinary brand fiction

Create a rich  and confident fiction around your brand. Keep your sense of humour, have fun, be silly. It needs to be bold and talked about beyond just industry press. John Lewis was so confident around its Christmas campaign that some of its best work was the Monty the Penguin paraphernalia, and the ongoing Comparethemeerkat narrative is a stand-out example.

Don’t be afraid of your brand. Mr Kipling’s ‘Life is Better with Cake’ is great – lovely big billboards saying kids parties are better with cake and ads you can eat. The whole campaign has an honest truth at its heart, being bold enough to fly in the face of endless calls for healthy living.

2 - Do one thing well

Marketers are faced with an ever-increasing mix of channels to choose from, so they need to know which channels are going to work best to deliver. Don't do lots of mediocre things, do one thing well.

Concentrate spend to drive consumers to the ‘event’, the spectacle– the great ad, the live activation. Magnum is a great current example, using social media via #MagnumLDN to guide people the ‘wow’ moment of its personalised pop-up store experience.

Use big spend to own certain spaces. Jack Daniels repeatedly buys the same expected places, with consumers following each episode of the story, like watching a TV series.

3 - Perform in physical spaces

Brands must look to their own spaces and media to tell their narrative. John Lewis showed the ‘Superhuman’ use of physical space with Monty’s Den and Magical Toy Machine - which brought the titular toy to virtual life using cutting-edge in-store technology.

In-store branding should be performance: Whittard has turned its stores into apothecary-like experiences for the discovery of exotic teas and creation of personalised blends.

The Guardian is positioning its media brand as a home for debate, entertainment and information with curated events planned for its new cultural centre, or rather theatre - The Guardian Space. Retail brands should learn from this and create new revenue streams from their bricks and mortar.

4 - Keep tight control

The world’s most valuable brands ensure perfection through strict processes, guidelines, rules and procedures. The top brands in the recently announced FutureBrand 100 all exert tight control over their brand image and how they communicate with consumers.

Red Bull delivers extraordinary fiction and big performance by being tightly controlled in the right places. Even the example of Walkers asking the public to choose their favourite crisp flavour is guiding consumers to act out a pre-directed script. These are brands which don’t really truly relinquish control but give the illusion of it. Control is key to unlocking Superhuman stories and performance.

In a world where brands seem to be spending more on being human, instead they need to sing from their stages and invest their monies as weird and wonderful, slippery and abstract distant entertainers not best friends

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