Alex Smith is founder of Basic Arts.@smithesq
It’s common knowledge that advertising has an authenticity problem. As transparency increases and brands lose control of their message, the public is starting to notice the gap between brand ideals and the humdrum reality of the business that lurks beneath.
But what about those that buck the trend? From the inspirational usual suspects, such as Red Bull, to transformative newcomers like Patagonia, some brands seem immune to cynicism.
We tend to dismiss them as outliers; products of visionary leaders, outlandish creativity, or just dumb luck. We excuse ourselves for not reaching their heights. It’s alright for them; they’re ‘cool’, we’re not.
But what if what separates these brands isn’t actually ‘coolness’? What if it isn’t something subjective like creativity? What if it’s actually something quite technical – something as mechanical and accessible as moving your spend from, say, TV to radio?
How do ‘normal’ brands get in on the authentic brand-building act?
There is, in fact, a common thread of behaviour running through the best modern brands, as obvious as it is rare: the advertising concepts they create don’t exist only in external campaigns; they exist in internal changes to their actual businesses.
Rather than isolating brand strategy to the marketing department, they extend it across everything they do. They use the kind of thinking normally reserved for advertising to design their distribution models, HR policies, product lines and everything else besides.
Take Bubblekid, a hair salon in Amsterdam with the proposition: "In creation we trust". The idea is that its stylists are so creative that you should give yourself over to them to do as they will. The proposition itself is not groundbreaking, but the delivery is.
Bubblekid asked: "Is the way we operate, the way we actually are, in accordance with this ideal, or is it just an empty piece of posturing slapped onto a generic salon?"
Brand-building is not an exercise of creating interesting campaigns that rub off on the company, but building an interesting company; the brand follows naturally and authentically, and transparency becomes a weapon
Its response? Removing all mirrors from its premises. If you go for a haircut at Bubblekid, you simply sit opposite another client, and give control over to the stylist, only ever seeing the finished product.
By doing this, Bubblekid made its brand and business synonymous, in effect rendering the concept of a "brand-building campaign" redundant.
Or take Google. The target audience it needs to impress are marketers. Safe to say it has done a great job. Most in our industry now view Google as the world’s most progressive and intelligent company, but it never launched a campaign to make us feel this way. The primary brand builder for this image was its HR policies. Google’s perks are now almost folkloric, inspiring even a Hollywood movie (The Internship), and have done more to shape brand perceptions than any other single act in its canon.
Google, like Bubblekid, demonstrated that, as far as it is concerned, brand-building is not an exercise of creating interesting campaigns that rub off on the company, but building an interesting company; the brand follows naturally and authentically, and transparency becomes a weapon.
What about ‘normal’ brands? How do they get in on the act? What we need to make this behaviour accessible is the creation of a discipline. Think about social. Initially, only the most experimental brands bothered with these channels. But, over time, this approach developed a name, a definition, some rigour, and suddenly it became as easy to buy as yelling: "Give me something social!" Codification is the tipping point between radical and routine.
The same is now happening with this process. After many industry discussions that circled around it, it is starting to crystallise under a clear definition: communication through altering or extending the internal elements of a business, rather than creating external campaigns. With this definition comes the opportunity to get brands and agencies on the same page, and make progress practically, not just theoretically.
It’s early days and the ramifications of the approach (especially for the expanded remit of marketing departments) are yet to be felt, but brands should dip their toes in the water. Just 5% of their marketing budgets redirected inward will produce profound results – and send ripples throughout the marketing world that will grow into waves of change.