Where once we simply looked to fill ad space, today we spend more and more of our time looking to drive consumer participation with brands. The thinking, as eloquently expressed by my colleague DB, is that consumers (helped by PVRs, music streaming services like Pandora etc etc) are creating ‘personal firewalls’ allowing them to lead blissfully advertising-free lives and enabling them to engage with brands only when they choose to.
Once our objective was damage limitation: we intruded on our captive audience’s TV viewing or magazine reading and hoped that we could win them round with funny / catchy / emotive / silly advertising so that they might remember us next time they were in the supermarket / car showroom / online… But today this captive audience has all-but disappeared, meaning that brand engagement must be a more positive choice – when you aren’t compelled to engage with a brand, why would you when there are so many more interesting things to do? Our new task, as argued by Gareth Kay is to create ideas that give people something in return for their attention: ideas that actually do something rather than just talking up our new toothpaste, car, perfume, cat-food. Citing examples like Nike+ and Fiat Eco Drive, he calls for us to ‘get into the business of creating communication products and out of the business of simply communicating products.’
Though this ‘give and take’ relationship with consumers entails more work and exposes brands to greater risks (Skittles anyone?), the rewards for getting participation right are significant. Thanks to their ability to spread brand messages far and wide via social media, engaged individuals represent a larger (in many cases) and significantly more persuasive channel than any TV or poster campaign we may have bought in the past, meaning that if we can create a sufficiently compelling ‘communication product’, they will work on our behalf to popularize it.
Where once the brief may have been ‘do me a 1984 or a Sony Balls’, it is increasingly ‘do me an Old Spice / VW Fun Theory / (insert flavor of the month here)’. But for every brilliantly conceived, so-simple-an-idea-you-wished-you’d-had-it, even-your-mum’s-talking-about-it, participation-driving-social-media-phenomenon, there are numerous others which fail to hit the mark. And of course, in our super-connected world, antagonizing consumers is the last thing we want to do: participation has more power to engage than traditional marketing approaches but it also has more power to piss people off.
In an open letter to ‘all of advertising and marketing’ (which has gone viral, striking a chord with consumers bombarded with ill-conceived invitations to participate) that objects to a campaign for a sausage brand, Brian (he doesn’t give his surname) writes “I don’t want to make a film, or draw a picture, or nominate a friend. Or compose a sound-track, or re-edit your advert.” He continues “I know it must be very tempting to sit in your nice, comfy offices and dream up schemes where normal people like me forget our everyday cares and participate in your marketing. But…please, please, PLEASE…Leave me alone.”
I have a suspicion that Brian may be from within our industry and this may be a hoax but whatever the truth, he raises a valid question: are there some categories and some brands where attempting to drive participation is inappropriate?
It is certainly true to say that the campaigns that often stimulate the most participation are from categories and brands (like the ‘Why so serious’ alternative reality game which launched ‘The Dark Knight’ or ‘The Best Job in the World’ which showcased one of the most beautiful places on earth) that people genuinely care about. But in these cases, consumers were not participating with the film or the Great Barrier Reef, they were participating with an idea (a communications product) inspired by them. The Barrier Reef has existed for many millions of years and the Batman franchise for 70 without a huge amount of social media buzz. It was the creation of compelling ‘communications products’ around them which got people participating.
The same goes for more mundane brands and categories. Given all the other distractions available to them, for consumers to spend time thinking about (participating with) blenders or soda would be and odd choice. But this is exactly what they do thanks to ‘Will it blend?’ and ‘The refresh project’, compelling ‘communications products’ that have been created around Blendtec and Pepsi and have successfully driven participation.
In his letter, Brian says ‘If you’d like to tell me what’s good about your product, fine. I may buy it. I may not.’ This is a perfectly logical approach and one that often used to work. That is in the days when Brian had little option other than to listen to what brands had to say. But now I fear that he has put up his personal firewall and is blanking out marketing messages meaning we have little option other than to attempt to communicate what it is that’s good about the product via more participative means.
So rather than condemn the sausage brand in question for attempting to stimulate participation, we should question the ‘mode of participation’ they sought. Finding itself in a low interest category, Blendtec doesn’t make big demands of its audience. It simply asks that people endorse its brand in the form of sharing links to, ‘liking’ and ‘tweeting’ the videos that it creates. I would argue that the mystery sausage brand’s mistake was to blindly seek participation without considering what its audience wants / needs and how a communication product could provide them with genuine value.
Identifying the appropriate ‘mode of participation’ is as important as the idea at the heart of the brand.
Given our changed brandscape (and despite Brian’s protestations), I believe that creating participation around brands will be absolutely key to their future success. And that even the most mundane products and brands, by understanding the role they play (or could play) in consumer’s lives have the opportunity to create compelling, value-adding communications products. But for these communications products to be successful, the demands they make on consumers must be proportionate to the reward they offer in return. Where traditional campaigns were about getting the message right, participative campaigns demand that we also get the ‘mode of participation’ right.
Given the miniscule readership of my blog, I’m unable to apologize on behalf of ‘all of advertising and marketing’. But on behalf of me and others who believe that done well, participative marketing is the future; sorry, we’ll do better next time.