Why brand communications need to give something extra to consumers, not simply sell the product

Nick Dudley-Williams, group marketing director at Cubo explains how brands should communicate with apathetic consumers by offering something new and relevant to their lives.

Many of us will be aware of the Yankelovich statistics on brand communications. They show that the average city dweller back in the 1970s would see around 500 brand messages every day. By the 1980s that figure had jumped up to 2,000, and in 2007 it surpassed 5,000. Some sources are even quoting over double that amount for today’s urbanites.

Information overload brings with it many side effects, but perhaps the most serious today is people’s indifference towards brand communications. It just bounces off us now. We’re all busy leading our complicated lives and, unable to take it all in, we’ve started to de-clutter, with brands and their communication becoming some of the first things to go. We now swiftly sieve through and block huge swathes of digital information at will, choosing where, when and how we consume information. The balance of power has shifted. People are in control.

And think, for a minute, about the relatively small number of brands you actually love and define yourself by. Maybe your phone (e.g. Apple), perhaps your newspaper (Guardian) or even your car (Audi). But even with these brands you cherish, how much time do you actively spend thinking and talking about their latest advertising or email campaign? Very little to none, I expect. There are far more important things going on in your life.

The much-praised presentation from Martin Weigel to the IPA earlier this year highlighted something we all secretly thought about in marketing circles, but were too nervous to discuss – that the real challenge facing brands today is that people are just not bothered. Expecting them to really care about your brand, and to think about it day and night, is a sure-fire path to failure. The explosion of debate online about Wiegel’s deck, both for and against, spoke volumes about how close to the bullseye he had got. He’d hit a nerve.

So how can brand marketers overcome this seemingly impenetrable wall of apathy and indifference towards their communications? The answer lies in the role your brand plays in people’s lives. In premium spirits for example, where demand for category knowledge is yearned for by an information-hungry audience, communications very much satisfy a need – to learn more about a subject. That said, if you are communicating to advocates, the pressure on communications to deliver the goods each and every time is even more intense. If it falls short, woe betide you.

In most cases however the reality couldn’t be more different. People now regularly switch to competitor brands without thinking twice, and that apathy erodes the very core of what brands are about. At Cubo, we’ve identified that when brand communications make meaningful and positive contributions to people’s day-to-day lives, they can begin to overcome people’s natural indifference towards the brand.

Brand communications need to be more than just sales vehicles for products and services. Brands add value, and so should their communications. They need to give something back to the people that keep them going in the first place (ie their customers). And, if communications can make people feel wiser, smarter, stronger, quicker… then the likelihood is they will react more favourably to it.

Contributory communications can come in many forms. They might be emotional – entertaining, removing fear, bringing joy. Or equally, they could be more functional: saving time; helping do something faster, or making it easier. But understanding people’s reality – their needs, desires and fears – is paramount if brand communications are going to make the right contribution in the right place at the right time.

“But do contributory communications make a long-term difference?” I hear you say.

Well, let me put it this way. The reality is that people don’t really care that much about your brand’s communications. You will always represent a minuscule part of their everyday life. But, through contribution, you can open a small window into their world and, for a few seconds, or minutes if you’re lucky, they’ll pay attention to what you’re doing and what you stand for. They might even tell someone about it and share it. And that’s a hell of a lot better than being ignored completely.

The final point to make is about competitive advantage. The brands that are contributing to people’s lives through their communications are, in our view, stealing an advantage. But those that identify opportunities to be the only brand capable of solving a particular human need, desire or fear are winning the race.

There are numerous examples of brands making excellent contributions via their communications. But one I recently read about stood out for me, despite its relatively small spend: the latest student recruitment campaign for The University of Engineering and Technology in Lima, Peru (UTEC).

UTEC wanted to show that their students and staff solve problems with engineering and technology by putting “imagination into action”. But instead of the more traditional approach, they took a very different tack.

They looked at what their catchment area needed in their daily lives and identified a real problem – drinking water was sparse. A few weeks later and a billboard with a difference appeared, one with a tap at its base.

Thanks to some engineering wizardry from the UTEC team, they housed air condensers within a recruitment billboard and in doing so produced 96 litres of clean drinking water a day for the local community. It was the ultimate win-win with the locals getting fresh drinking water and UTEC having the most talked about billboard in the world. For me, it’s the perfect example of an organisation looking at its audience and thinking about how it can contribute to their daily lives.

So don’t just broadcast messages at people. Use your communications to help them in their daily lives in a way that only your brand can, and they’ll pay you back in spades. Here’s to more brand communications giving, not taking.

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