Category: Digital

Brand building in a digital age: Old thinking for new times


A good question

Last year Admap set the marketing community a rather excellent essay question – ‘How brands are built in the digital age’.

(Given that most of what follows is not my original thinking , contains content from previous posts, and is twice the designated word limit, I chose not to submit it).

It is a great question, not least because it refocuses our minds on brands.  Guy Murphy has put it well: “I like this question. It rightly assumes that brands will remain important in future, and doesn’t invite any silliness about them being a quaint marketing concept that can’t survive the rise of technology. The question also raises the current industry debate up from ‘communication engagement’ to ‘brand-building’.”

However in truth it is really a question with two parts.

For it first demands a perspective on how brands have been hitherto built, before the offering of any opinion and hypothesis as to what (if anything) is different in our digital age.

The temptation with Admap’s question is of course to concentrate on looking for differences what is different today. And indeed if we are not to stumble into the future walking backwards, then understanding what has changed and is changing is  a necessary and important exercise.

But it cannot be the only one. For as Shane Parrish (of fame) has recently written:

When we look at situations we’re always looking for what’s unique. We should, however, give more thought to similarities. This time is different could be the 4 most costly words ever spoken. It’s not the words that are costly so much as the conclusions they encourage us to draw. We incorrectly think that differences are more valuable than seeing similarities. After all, anyone can see what’s the same but it takes true insight to see what’s different. We’re all so busy trying to find the differences that we forget to pay attention to what’s the same….  If you catch yourself reasoning based on “this time is different” remember that you are probably speculating. While you may be right, odds are, this time is not different. You just haven’t looked for the similarities.”

It seems perhaps only fair then,  that I should get the caveat and the apology out of the way before you, dear reader, find yourself having wasted your time.

No great revelations are to be found in what follows. Nor will the reader find any grand universal theory of How Everything Changed. No predictions and diagnoses are made for seismic changes in the consumer landscape and the marketing industry. No obituaries for any discipline or practice are offered up. Nobody will come away feeling that they have been handed some golden key of new and privileged insight. And there will be not a whiff of currency, coolness, Zeitgiest or marketing avant-gard-ness about any of it.

For all these reasons, I hesitated to even write this this piece. We are afterall – and understandably perhaps – fixated as an industry on what’s new.

Then I stumbled upon an old post from Helen Edwards. She writes:

The ‘everything-has-changed brigade has garnered a cache of stories to bolster its cause.

They might point to the waiting lists achieved by Lancôme, which seeded its DreamTone serum with influential bloggers to foment “must-have” desire. Or to Ford, which loaned pre-launch Fiestas to 100 fashionable young drivers for six months, to earn the kind of buzz advertising can’t. Or Kellogg, which has built a teen fanbase for its Krave cereal through a series of quirky videos from YouTube vloggers. At this point, doubters could be forgiven for capitulation: if even the straight-laced marketers from Battle Creek are embracing the trend, perhaps it’s time to get on board.

Not so fast. When euphoria meets anecdote, that is precisely the moment when sane marketers need to hold their nerve and insist on answers to some very basic questions.”

“When euphoria meets anecdote”.

Helen’s words convinced me that there is some worth to going back to basics. What follows is as much an effort to work out my own thoughts as anything else.

And there are surely few more basic questions than – what do we know about how brands brand built?

My answer and argument is simple. The fundamental processes that build and sustain brands have not changed.

It’s just that everything else has.

A framework for inquiry

In his 1990 paper ‘Brand Presence and the Perceptual Frame’, marketing consultant and former adman William Moran provides us with pragmatic and commercially-attuned starting point for thinking about brands are built:

Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 11.51.00 AM

Moran’s framework is in truth nothing more that a slightly more sophisticated rendering of the very familiar ‘3Ps’ of marketing.

Except that (echoing the four Ps advocated  by McCarthy back in 1960) to the familiar three Ps of Product, Price and Promotion, Moran added a third – Presence.

Wearingly familiar, isn’t it?


Except that marketers of every hue are now on the receiving end of all kinds of misconceived advice. The kind of advice that suggests that ‘growth hacking’ means marketing is dead. Or that the existence of consumer reviews and sharing means that paid for publicity is done for.

Familiar it might be. But Moran’s framework gives us a robust framework for evaluating marketing’s outputs, and for thinking about how marketing has changed, is changing, and must change.

For Moran the two fundamental processes which can produce change in sales,  are a change in perceived Value and a change in Presence.

Change in Value he argued, can come about from either of two subprocesses:

A change in perceived utilities (attributes) as the result of the brand’s actions or those of a competitor.”


A change in relative price, either briefly or longer.”

Presence Moran defined as being “constituted by all marketing actions which produce changes in sales without any change in perceived value. Presence is the lubricator which simply facilitates sales by reducing the mental friction in the consumer’s decision-making process.”

Moran distinguished between physical and mental presence:

Distribution, shelf space, and displays can be termed physical presence because the physical product is a necessary part of the marketing action”

Mental presence is created by communications… Salience… is the degree to which a given brand comes to minds in the context of a particular purchase occasion or consumption occasion.”

So for Moran, Value (utility + price) + Presence (physical + mental) = sustainable profit.

Which is after all, the whole point of branding.

As I said, all very wearingly familiar.

Thanks to the the work of Les Binet and Peter Field in analyzing the IPA’s DataBank, we can add some other vital multiplying factors for successful branding.

Namely time, investment, emotion, and creativity.

The necessity of time

In The Long And The Short Of It: Balancing Short- And Long-Term Marketing Strategies, Les Binet and Peter Field report on their of analysis of the IPA Effectiveness Databank. The data held therein is the product of 30 years of the IPA effectiveness Awards – numbering some 996 campaigns, for 700 brands in over 80 categories.

Their analysis makes it clear that (contrast to our culture of immediacy) advertising’s ability to create value is most keenly felt in the long-term:

The total number of business effects rises steadily as the campaign length increases… This is largely as one would expect: the longer a campaign runs, the more investment has been put behind it and the more time it has to generate effects.”

This picture is replicated with the profit metric, though with a notably greater increase between 1 and 2-year campaigns.”

Most profitable of all are campaigns that drive both volume and pricing… Their principle characteristic is that incremental volume is achieved whilst strengthening margin.”

No 3-month campaigns report major pricing effects.”

Volume effects are quick to achieve but pricing effects take much longer.”

The creation of memory, brands, and business growth takes time. And as such it is, like it or not, at odds with one of the defining characteristics of our age – immediacy.

This is not to deny the value of brands being responsive in the here and now. Or the value of a brand demonstrating its currency, of surfing the ever-changing waves, fads and currents of popular culture. Or of providing short-term bursts of interest and fame.

Nor is this to suggest that there is no value in short-term activity. As Binet and Field comment:

The IPA data suggests that the optimum balance of brand and activation expenditure is on average around 60:40, though this may vary by category and is driven by how category expenditure divides (typically 60:40): the objective is to achieve equal share of voice within brand and activation.”

Direct campaigns [campaigns that use immediate behavioral triggers] work most efficiently over short time frames…  They are essential for short-term sales efficiency. But direct campaigns are not efficient drivers of long-term growth (over 3+ years).”

That said, simply delivering short-term activity does not lead to success in the long term. As Binet and Field observe:

The way in which long-term effects are generated is fundamentally different from how most short-term effects are produced. Although long-term effects always produce some short-term effects, the reverse is not true and long-term effects are not simply an accumulation of short-term effects.”

So however much it may be the spirit (for better and for worse) of our times, we cannot allow our expectation of immediate delivery and satisfaction undermine our ability to deliver value. As Binet and Field put it:

Without brand building (measured as major brand equity shifts – awareness, image and so on) there are no price elasticity improvements. The correlation between improved price elasticity and enhanced brand standing is strikingly linear. No amount of short-term sales activity will produce the broad brand strengthening necessary to enable firmer pricing. Brand-building activity may be slow but it is essential for the optimum profitability of most brands.”

The need for investment

The IPA 2009 report ‘How share of voice wins market share: New findings from Nielsen and the IPA databank’ contains two critical pieces of advice for those pursuing growth.


The critical metric that determines the level of a brand’s market share growth is its excess share of voice (ESOV), defined as share of voice (SOV) minus share of market (SOM).”

In other words, if you want to grow your market share you need to over invest.

The second piece of advice it offers is this:

The corollary of this is that no agency or marketing client can guarantee to continue to deliver the same level of business performance for a brand is ESOV is falling as a result of underinvestment in media and marketing communications.”

In other words if you are under-investing, you can expect your market share to decline.

The Nielsen analysis included two years’ of media and sales data over the period ending August 2008, for 123 brands in 30 FMCG categories,

Nielsen investigated the impact of brands’ SOV in the first year on sales over the two-year period and used ‘base sales’ to exclude the effects of distribution changes, price promotions, and other in-store activity.

The key findings from the Nielsen analysis were:

    1. The relationship between ESOV and share growth was confirmed.
    2. An average of 0.5% points of share growth can be expected per 10% points of ESOV. Thus, a brand with a market share of 20.5% and ESOV of 10% points would expect to grow over a year to 21%.
    3. The levels of growth achieved per point of ESOV vary according to brand size

Binet and Field conclude (this really is the last time I will quote them) thus:

It is often asserted that share of voice is irrelevant in the digital era: this is not true. The correlation of SOV with market share growth is getting stronger and the returns on investing in SOV are also increasing as the level of brand choice continues to grow and the internet becomes more crowded with commercial activity.”

The power of creativity

So to some degree, market share can be bought.

However, the unfair advantage that any marketer can choose to leverage is the power of creativity.

In its report The link between creativity and effectiveness, the IPA has some fantastically valuable analysis of the relationship between creatively-awarded work and effectiveness.

The sample used for this study were the 257 IPA Effectiveness cases studies for which Gunn Report scores were all available.

As an aside, given that 257 represents less than 1% of UK advertisers, and around 1 in 7000 pick up the minimum major creative awards needed to be recorded in the Gunn Report each year, the fact that no fewer than 46 (18%) of the sample of IPA campaigns appear in the Gunn Report database already suggests that there is some kind of relationship between creativity and effectiveness.

Obviously this isn’t proof and so this study examined whether this 18% of creatively-awarded campaigns outperformed the 82% of non-awarded campaigns in hard business terms.

The short answer, is yes.

The IPA’s analysis reveals that that non-awarded campaigns, on average generate 0.5 points of share growth per 10 points of ESOV. Which is obviously very much in line with the findings from Nielsen’s analysis.

In sharp contrast, creatively-awarded campaigns generate on average 5.7 points of share growth per 10 points of ESOV.

In other words creatively-awarded campaigns generate around 11 times  (that’s right, 11 times) more share growth per 10 points of ESOV than creatively-non-awarded campaigns.

The levers of brand building

So at the risk of sounding as if I think I’ve cracked the code and am delivering some grandiose universal theory of marketing, it is nevertheless possible to make some confident generalizations.

The levers of brand building have been:




And their multipliers have been:




Which brings us on the the second part of the essay question.

What, in this ‘digital age’, has changed?

Have the walls of marketing’s Jericho come tumblin’ down?

What do we seeing happening?

I should hasten to addd that what follows is intended merely a ‘taster’ – and certainly not as an exhaustive overview. That would be folly and arrogance beyond words. And I am sure that errors will be found that require calling out and correcting.

New forms of utility

‘Utility’ is a bit of an unhelpful moniker, as to many it might suggest only tangible, functional utility, when many of the satisfactions consumers seek (and which justify a price premium) are symbolic, emotional, and social in nature.

So let’s be clear that by utility we mean both the tangible and intangible.

Nonetheless  (and rather obviously), new technology allows for new forms of utility.

We are seeing the malleability of software allowing for marketers to evolve, iterate and improve the product experience in response to consumer interactions in the real world, not the laboratory.

In some markets we are seeing the emergence of new models of product ownership, in which access to goods and services is rented, rather than outright ownership of goods given over to consumers.

Services such as  Peugeot’s rental offering Mu and Zipcar  provide urban consumers with access to personal transportation without having to incur the burden of ownership.

The direct links between customers and products and the ability to track their usage that all things ‘digital’ enable, means we are able to involve consumers involved in the development and day-to-day running of products and services.

Waze for example, has built up a databank of maps and traffic reports through crowdsourcing. By tracking the GPS coordinates of its users and monitoring their traffic reports, it is able to divert users away from congestion.

We are seeing utility being used as a vehicle for publicity and promotion. Whereas product development and publicity occupied very distinct silos, marketing is now being “baked into” products and services.

For example, by placing a ‘Get free space button’ on their front page and offering users an additional get 500 megabytes of free space for every friend they invited and got to sign up, Dropbox managed to dramatically sign ups and achieve the critical mass it had been missing. Today, 35% of Dropbox’s customers still come to it via referral.

Of course more intangible utility has not gone away. We do not live in a world where our experience is limited to simply what we see. We all live and work – many of us skilfully and effortlessly – within two worlds; the world of objects and the world of meanings. And we need this imagined world to give our identities, lives and experiences depth, significance and meaning.

We are seeing “the power of reality” as Guy Murphy has put it, to build and sustain the meaning and emotional component of brands.

So we are seeing new forms of utility. And with it, new business models, new businesses, and new brands. It’s a new and exciting frontier.

And perhaps this new world of utility is teaching the marketing world something. Perhaps it is teaching us to value the sausage as much as the sizzle. As Jim Carroll has written recently written:

Tech brands spend the vast majority of their time and energy in the pursuit of innovation; creating astounding products is their main obsession. There is always something new to say, whether it’s a big breakthrough or a modest upgrade. Which is why their communications are so firmly rooted in product truth. This might be considered old-fashioned in a world of purpose-led brand building. But it provides a refreshing break from the pseudo-insights, hyperbole and overly-elaborate ideas which fill much of today’s communications landscape.”

So utility is very much alive and well.

Which serves only to underscore the rank stupidity (or shameless self-promoting) of anyone proclaiming marketing to be dead.

Perhaps they should read the words of Helen Edwards:

Look back at the classic definition of marketing, from the father of the discipline, Theodore Levitt. Its central tenet is that marketing must ‘work back from consumer needs’ Consumers don’t really ‘need’ communications; it is a commercial, rather than a customer, imperative. What consumers need is better products, improved service, easier lives, a cleaner world, and more health and happiness. The proper job of marketers is to identify, or better still, anticipate, these needs, and imagine ways to fulfill them that might lead to sustainable returns.”

New forms of availability

Byron Sharp has rightly underscored the importance of physical availability:

Physical availability means making a brand as easy to notice and buy as possible, for as many consumers as possible, across as wide a range of buying situations as possible… being easy to notice and buy is essential, because buyers do not have strong preferences even for the brands they are loyal to; they are happy to but alternatives from within their personal repertoires (and they regularly do).”

There was a time of course when  – apart from service brands – physical shelf space and availability was all that mattered in the quest to make brands easy to buy.

Needless to say, digital connections and interactions mean that physical structures are not the only way to win in the battle for availability.

Today we are seeing digital availability being used to enhance physical availability, and we are seeing digital availability being used to replace or bypass physical availability.

We all know the story of Blockbuster. And Barnes & Noble.

(Though we should beware of overstating the case. Take the UK, for example. While online spending is growing year-on year, the vast majority  – 90% – of retail sales still come from people doing their shopping in the physical world).

We are seeing – thanks to our new powers of surveillance – brands responding to and anticipating people’s need or interest.

We are seeing brands connect directly with customers, rather than via third parties.

We are seeing brands exploiting the interconnectedness of all things digital to create shelf space and make it easy for people to buy.

Airbnb for example, expanded its digital shelf space by gaining free distribution on Craigslist.

Spotify expanded its shelf space by being integrated into Facebook.

We are of course seeing an explosion in the ways in which brands can create memory and meaning. Creativity is now properly unbounded, no longer constrained by media formats.

We are able to give consumers the opportunity to interact in all manner of ways from the undemanding and lightweight to the participative and immersive.

We are certainly seeing brands relentlessly stalk consumers as they travel across the internet

We are able to employ consumers as advocates, ambassadors, co-creators, publicists, and media channels.

And increasingly, we are able to customize the content, timing, and targeting of our content.

New modes of pricing

The economics of digital goods are allowing brands to offer consumers goods and services for free.

As Chris Anderson first wrote in Wired magazine:

It’s now clear that practically everything Web technology touches starts down the path to gratis, at least as far as we consumers are concerned. Storage now joins bandwidth (YouTube: free) and processing power (Google: free) in the race to the bottom. Basic economics tells us that in a competitive market, price falls to the marginal cost. There’s never been a more competitive market than the Internet, and every day the marginal cost of digital information comes closer to nothing.”

We’re seeing brands able to employ the minority of paying users to support the majority of non-paying users, because the cost of serving that majority is close enough to zero to call it nothing.

We’re seeing brands employ ‘freemium’ pricing models in which they offer free version of their product or service as a vehicle for recruiting users, and charging for advanced features, functionality, virtual goods, or an ad-free experience.

Thus we see that in seven of the Apple App Store’s 10 largest categories, the majority of revenue comes from in-app purchases in free apps.

We’re seeing some brands test dynamic pricing.  And (as Amazon did) in doing so, occasionally test the goodwill of their customers.

We’re seeing brands such as ebay and Priceline allowing consumers to bid on items.

Mobile technology has of course liberated consumers from having their choice limited by what’s in front of them on shelf. Consumers are now able to treat physical stories as showrooms in which they search for a cheaper option online.

With all that in mind, let’s go back to Moran’s model and ‘traditional’ levers of brand building.

Back to the future

Whatever pattern of changes, evolutions and disruptions we might trace, it’s fairly clear that brand building still requires the delivery of value, and the creation of presence.

And it still benefits from the the multipliers of time, investment, and creativity.

So Moran’s model serves to remind us of two things.

First, it reminds us that the fundamental brand building mechanics of value and presence, the subprocesses of utility, pricing, and the creation of physical and mental presence, together with the necessity of time, investment, and creativity have not evaporated.

Marketers struggling to keep up with and make sense of the blizzard of change, evolution, disruption, advice, and opinion need not despair.

It may not make for sexy headlines (or even win essay competitions), but the fact of the matter is that the old imperatives still hold.

Which exposes the hollow, self-serving, unevidenced, link-baiting, self-aggrandising rhetoric of ‘marketing is dead’ to be precisely what it is. Total and utter bullshit.

Yet while the fundamental outputs of marketing have not been rendered obsolete, how marketers deliver value and presence is most certainly being reworked.

Connectivity, interactivity, immediacy, sociability, transparency, collaboration, prediction, responsiveness, targeting, automation, disintermediation, customization, mobility… all of these phenomenon (and more) are fundamentally remaking how brands connect with consumers.

(That said, our choice of how is always contingent. On the nature of the task, the resources available, the competition, the audience, and the brand. Without that knowledge, it is impossible to legislate what is right and appropriate. Declaring it’s the age of this or the age of that, makes for fun headlines.  But it’s a long way short of being sound, pragmatic business advice).

There is then, as much to unlearn as there is to relearn.

And as technology and code continue to remake our lives, there are inevitably, new skills to acquire and add to the old ones. For both the individual, and the corporation.

Blowing up the silos

Moran’s model provides us with another useful reminder.

Marketing is not and has never been synonymous with advertising – its remit and output is far broader and more far-reaching than merely the development of communications.

So when publicity can be baked into the product…

When product design can be a means of meaning manufacture…

When distribution can be baked into the product…

When physical products are assuming a digital life…

When social channels are becoming means of delivering customer services…

When pricing models are being used as distribution mechanics…

When marketing content is no longer a dead end and is becoming just the beginning of a customer journey…

When the gap between publicity and purchase can be compressed…

When the consumer is a distribution channel…

When the consumer can no longer be held at arm’s length…

Then it really is time to let go  of the antiquated notion that marketing is synonymous with ‘messaging’.

And it is high time that we blow up the mental and organisational silos that still bedevil us.

Perhaps if we all thought of ourselves in the business of creating connections, then we’d find ourselves better adapted to the new environments and possibilities of our age.

If we wish to be effective, we are about creating connections in the mind, we create connections between people, companies and brands, and we help create connections between people and other people.

I’ve said it before – in an age defined by its connectedness – people to people, people to things, and things to other things – that seems a far more accurate and useful perspective on what we all do.

So as digital continues blurs the old distinctions between product, publicity and distribution, marketers that insist on thinking in silos will fail to prosper.

Or simply fail.

As Laurence Green has recently written, “That our siloes, meanwhile, remain somehow untouched, integrated seamlessly behind a genuinely common agenda only by the brilliant or in times of crisis, is an ongoing source both of mystery and irritation.”

With all this in in mind, it is worth revisiting words from twenty five years ago. From the father of account planning Stephen King. In his essay ‘The anatomy of account planning’, he posed a challenge to agencies and clients alike. Never have his words seemed to prescient:

Marketing companies today… recognize that rapid response in the marketplace needs to be matched with a clear strategic vision. The need for well-planned brand-building is very pressing. At the same time they see changes in ways of communicating with their more diverse audiences. They’re increasingly experimenting with non-advertising methods. Some are uneasily aware that these different methods are being managed by different people in the organisation to different principles; they may well be presenting conflicting impressions of the company and its brands. It all needs to be pulled together. I think that an increasing number of them would like some outside help in tackling these problems, and some have already demonstrated that they’re prepared to pay respectable sums for it. The job seems ideally suited to the strategic end of the best account planning skills. The question is whether these clients will want to get such help from an advertising agency.

What agencies, and the account planners in them, would have to do is above all, demonstrate that they have the breadth of vision and objectivity to do the job; apply ‘how marketing communications work’ thinking and R&D to a much wider area; probably bring in more outside talent, from marketing companies or other fields of communication; make more efforts to ‘go to the top’ in client contact (the one great advantage of the various specialists); and make sure that they get paid handsomely for the work. I very much hope that this can happen – I wouldn’t like to think of the best strategic planners leaving for the other sorts of company or of agency planners shifting wholly to advert-tweaking.”

The question is (still) whether clients want to get such help from an agency, and whether agencies for their part have the desire and ability to demonstrate that they have the breadth of vision and objectivity to do the job.

Old thinking for new times

If we want to live up to King’s hope and vision, then we could do worse than not lose sight of some seriously good ol’ fashioned Ps.

It’s not cool, it’s not radical, it doesn’t make for great headlines, and it predates the internet.

But as a means of staying sane amidst the flux and uncertainty, of staying focused on what matters, and of assessing how to make best and most profitable use of all that is new, I think we could do a lot worse.

And if we were to think more often about all the Ps, we might just do a lot better.



Admap is essential reading. If you don’t, I suggest you do  – in bridging the gulf between academia and practitioners, it’s pretty much required reading. I’m looking forward to reading the winning essays.



Chris Anderson, ‘Free! Why $0.00 is the future of business

Les Binet & Peter Field , ‘Brand success in the digital age’, Market Leader, Quarter 4, 2013

Les Binet & Peter Field, The Long and the Short of it: Balancing Short and Long-Term marketing Strategies

Jim Carroll, ‘Talk like a tech brand’

Laurence Green, ‘Precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true’, Contagious. 28th January 2014

Helen Edwards, ‘Too many marketers ignore their primary task’

Helen Edwards., ‘Amid social media euphoria marketers ask basic questions’

IPA, The Link Between Creativity and Effectiveness: New Findings from the Gunn Report and the IPA Databank

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Stephen King – The Anatomy of Account Planning, 1989

‘Freemium is the most profitable pricing strategy for apps’, Mashable, December 20th 2013

Patricia McDonald, ‘The winter of our discontent’

William T. Moran, ‘Brand presence and the perceptual frame’, Journal of Advertising Research, October/November 1990

Guy Murphy, ‘Brands in the digital age: The opt-in age of brands’, Admap, December 2013

Shane Parrish, ‘This time is different’

Byron Sharp, How Brands Grow

Time to get out of the message business


If there is one thing guaranteed to relegate a marketing to both ineffectiveness and obsolescence, it is the belief that its primary form of influencing consumer behaviour is through messaging.

Messaging doesn’t reflect how people consume advertising and make sense of brands.

We know that the brain is not some rigid filing system in which memories reside as fully formed recordings. It is something altogether more dynamic and malleable.

Indeed it’s more accurate to think of memory as a process, not a thing. Our brain’s networks of nerve cells or ‘neurons’ are not fixed entities, but rather, are dynamic and continuously modified by experience. What people experience results in new connections in the structure of our brains.

While parts of marketingland still believe we’re in business of transmitting of information, of ‘communicating’ abstract, intellectual ‘messages’ or propositions, advertising doesn’t work through filing verbal messages and propositions in people’s mental filing systems.

Memory actually works through the creation of connections.  A brand is simply a set of connections and associations in the brain. We form and access memories of brands by creating and activating these networks of associations.

So people don’t consume and file away abstract ideas and propositions. They consume (as Robert Heath has shown, they often with fairly low levels of attention) all the visual, verbal, audible, tangible characteristics of our content – and these create new connections and in the brain.

Judith Williamson in her wonderful, essential, hostile and demanding book Decoding Advertising: Ideology and Meaning In Advertising demonstrates how advertising’s real work lies in its aesthetic wholes, and how it operates larges silently, through its codes and signals, rather than messages:

What an advertisement ‘says’ is merely what it claims to say; it is part of the deceptive mythology of advertising to believe that an advertisement is simply a transparent vehicle for a ‘message’ behind it. Certainly a large part of any advertisement is this ‘message’: we are told something about a product, and asked to buy it. the information we are given is frequently untrue, and even when it is true, we are often being persuaded to buy products which are unnecessary… a criticism of advertising on these grounds is valid, and I would support it. However such a criticism is in many ways the greatest obstacle of all to a true understanding of the role of advertisements in our society, because it is based on the assumption that ads are merely the invisible  conveyors of certain undesirable messages, and only sees meaning in the overt ‘content’ of the ad rather than it its ‘form’ – in other words, ignoring the ‘content’ of the ‘form’.”

So the consumption and decoding of marketing content is something altogether fuzzier than we often allow for. As Stephen King in JWT’s Planning Guide noted back in 1974:

An advertisement as a stimulus is a combination of medium, words, pictures, movements, symbols, associations, tones of voice, etc. The stimulus is received as a totality; the receiver does not separate content and form. The individual elements of an advertisement have no meaning on their own. They can only be judged in combination.”

Feldwick has similarly done much to remind us that advertising, like art does not work through reductionist concepts, but through the experience of aesthetic wholes.

So the What and How are inseparable. We exercise brand impressionism – rather than ‘taking out messages’, we are left with general impressions from what we’re exposed to.

Treating creativity merely as a means of tricking or bribing the viewer into paying attention to the message within it profoundly undervalues and undermines the both the nature and the value of creativity.

Creativity isn’t some kind of distraction tactic, bait or bribe. It isn’t a wrapper or envelope for a message.

It IS the content.

But there is another pressing issue with the idea of messaging.

For aside from the fact that the marketing-as-message model of influencing consumer behaviour doesn’t reflect how people consume communications, it’s singularly ill-suited to adapting itself to people’s digital interactions.

Searching, browsing, searching, tagging, uploading, downloading, sharing, linking, commenting, buying, playing, liking… To varying degrees of involvement and intensity, these are behaviors.

And messaging in an environment characterized by behaviours obviously struggles.

It either gatecrashes, misses out on vast opportunity, or is simply rendered impotent.

Small wonder then, that those charged with creating and leveraging digital behaviors should regard those who believe they are in the business of issuing messages with such bafflement or suspicion. And indeed vice versa.

The messaging school of marketing misunderstands the human mind, misunderstands the nature of creativity, and opens up a deeply unhelpful schism.

It really is time to let get out of the message business.

We need, to borrow the words of Jaron Lanier, a palette cleansing, a broadening of horizons.

Perhaps if we all thought of ourselves in the business of creating connections, then we’d find ourselves better adapted to the new environments and possibilities of our age.

And perhaps we’d begin to see how absurd are the solios that we’ve insisted on operating in.

For if we we wish to be effective, we are about creating connections.

Connections in the mind.

Connections between people, companies and brands.

And connections between people and other people.

In an age defined by its relentlessly blooming connectedness – people to people, people to things, and things to other things – that seems a far more accurate and useful perspective on what we all do.

“Only connect”, as E.M. Forster wrote.

What is the future of cultural production? Discuss

Very few people can look a wholesale social, cultural and psychological transformation taking place on an unparalleled scale steadily in the eye…

McLuhan’s point is that when it comes to the impact of new media on the human consciousness – both individual and collective – content is an irrelevance; we have to look not at what is on the screen, but how the screen is used. McLuhan saw in the early 1960s that all the brouhaha about what imagery was shown on television and what words were spoken was so much guff; the transformation from what he termed “the linear Gutenberg technology” to the “total field” one implied by the instantaneity of electricity was all that mattered, and this was a change in the human mind as well as the human hand. McLuhan’s global village is indeed all about us now, and it already exhibits social, psychological and cultural behaviours that are entirely different from those implicit in the technologies of mass broadcast and individual, concentrated absorption…

For those who think that narrative art forms are in a state of crystalline stasis it’s worth taking a slightly longer view: film is only just over a century old, the novel as we commonly understand it a mere two centuries old – the copyrights that protected them are about 150 years old. At the moment, the wholesale reconfiguration of art is only being retarded by demographics: the middle-aged possessors of Gutenberg minds remain in the majority in western societies, and so we struggle to impose our own linearity on a simultaneous medium to which it is quite alien. The young, who cannot read a text for more than a few minutes without texting, who rely on the web for both their love affairs and their memories of heartache, and who can sometimes find even cinema difficult to take unless it comes replete with electronic feedback loops, are not our future: we, the Gutenberg minds have no future, and our art forms and our criticism of those art forms will soon belong only to the academy and the museum.”

Will Self


How can we better help our clients (and indeed ourselves) look this transformation in the eye?

How can we help ‘Gutenberg minds’ make the transition?

What are we doing to trace and understand these new social, psychological and cultural behaviours?

And what will it mean to produce content for a ‘post-Gutenberg’ world?

Hacking the business with Stephen King


The need for more (and better) problems

When did creativity become a pseudonym for producing advertising? And when did strategy become a means to a message?

At a time when technology enables boundless creativity,  when digital interactions are blurring the line between product, product experience, and marketing communications, and changing how people search, choose, and buy, we are all – clients and agencies alike – in danger of limiting the scope and potential of creativity. As Lawrence Green has put it:

The task of any imaginative agency, any creative company, is to understand and serve it client’s business problems. Too often, our business has sliced and diced its tasks in the style of a sub-prime mortgage bundler. A corporate task set by the chief executive, reframed as a comms task by the marketing director, refined by the brand consultancy and reduced by the ad agency to the stuff advertising can do: Grow awareness, nurture engagement. Too many links, too indirect and weak a connection between commercial possibilities and creative resolution.”

Elsewhere, away from adland, others have argued that we need  to be ‘growth hackers’.  Josh Elman has described growth hacking as describing “a new process for acquiring and engaging users combining traditional marketing and analytical skills with product development skills.” According to Elman:

In the past, marketing and product development departments were often at odds where marketing groups would be spending significant amounts of money to acquire users but couldn’t get any development resources to build something as simple as new custom landing pages. And on the other side, product development teams would often build what they think users want and will attract users without deeply measuring and understanding the impact of their changes. This concept of “growth hacking” is a recognition that when you focus on understanding your users and how they discover and adopt your products, you can build features that help you acquire and retain more users, rather than just spending marketing dollars.” 

Of course what Elman is describing is not new at all. It is simply good marketing. It just probably doesn’t happen as often as it should.

So all this begs some questions:

How can we look beyond what advertising can solve?

How exactly do we expand the scope and value of creativity?

How can we identify opportunities for growth?

How can marketing properly shape itself around the consumer?

How can marketing define itself by what it solves, rather than by what it makes?

How can product development and marketing be reunited once more?

In all of this, theory and rhetoric will not help us. We need something more practical.

I am no a fan of templates and processes. We create after all, bespoke solutions for the unique challenges faced by each client. But I am a fan of anything that gets us asking better questions. And it is at this point that we must step back to the future.  For Stephen King gave us just the sort of questions we need. They are oddly neglected in the compendium of his best work – A Masterclass in Brand Planning, and are worth revisiting.

King’s Consumer Buying System

King’s model  – the ‘consumer buying system’ – appeared in his Manual of Tools of the Trade for Advertising Planners that he developed for JWT in the late 1980s.

It is by no means a panacea. And it certainly cannot solve the systemic dysfunctions of both agencies and client organizations that prevent us from a broader application of creativity. Nonetheless, it can encourage the well-intentioned and the ambitious to ask new, and better questions.

King had developed his model principally as a means of shaping and guiding a communications plan. His focus was largely on both the role and the choice of communications channels.

However, in as much as his model was largely a means of understanding consumer behaviour, its application and value goes far beyond that.  As King wrote in his introduction to the model:

The objective is to take your brand, examine the stages in the [Consumer Buying System] and ask, ‘How can we move the consumer through the process?’”

I make no claim for uniqueness in any of what follows. There is many a good marketer who employs their own version of King’s model.

(That said, and by way of a pedantic aside, King’s model predates  McKinsey’s model by decades. Thus demonstrating that those who are unaware of history are doomed to repeat it).

The model

Below are the phases of the model, as described by King.

It is worth noting that King was a big opponent of the one-size-fits-all approach, and recognized that the path to purchase varied depending on the category. Buying a bar of chocolate is different from buying a Picasso, or breakfast cereal, or a pair of trainers, or a holiday, or a car.

And so, by way of a preface, it’s worth bearing in mind, as he wrote:

The time frame for this process will vary enormously from category to category, for example, buying a car could take the consumer a year, whereas buying a box of cereal, from running out of the previous box to the next purchase, could take just hours. Thus some  stages are less relevant to some categories, and not all consumers within one specific category may pass through all the stages. For example,  when “buying” a new long-distance phone service, some consumers are  simply stimulated to change their phone company by an advertised offer,  whereas others will collect and evaluate information on long-distance  providers to improve their comfort level with the company.”

buying system.001 buying system.002 buying system.003 buying system.004 buying system.005 buying system.006

At each stage we should be asking – what exactly is happening?

buying system.007

New questions, new solutions

If we must, we can call it a framework for ‘growth hacking’. Certainly the sort of thinking, questions, and the types of solutions that King’s model encourages is instructive. As soon as we start unpacking people’s behaviours, we start inventing all manner of stuff that isn’t advertising:

examples.001 examples.002 examples.003 examples.004 examples.005

If we in adland only ever see ad-shaped problems, we’ll only create ad-shaped solutions. But if we see people, all manner of new and exciting stuff starts to happen.  As ever in marketing, progress lies in asking better questions and more imaginatively examining the lives, habits, needs, wants, desires, frustrations and dissatisfactions in people’s lives.

As King said of his model:

Since all marketing activities are aiming to reinforce or modify people’s sequence of ideas and actions, the buying system really is the starting point for all marketing and planning activity.”

That said, client organizations and their marketing departments too must assume their share of responsibility.  Often, it seems, they are divorced from product development, isolated from IT, embroiled in turf war standoffs with other functions, unwilling or simply unable to provide agency partners with real business issues to solve, and more comfortable passing off ad requests and  ‘insight’ babble as bona fide client briefs.

King, ever prescient, identified the need and opportunity for thinking more broadly about brand building:

Marketing companies today… recognize that rapid response in the marketplace needs to be matched with a clear strategic vision. The need for well-planned brand-building is very pressing. At the same time they see changes in ways of communicating with their more diverse audiences. They’re increasingly experimenting with non-advertising methods. Some are uneasily aware that these different methods are being managed by different people in the organisation to different principles; they may well be presenting conflicting impressions of the company and its brands. It all needs to be pulled together. I think that an increasing number of them would like some outside help in tackling these problems, and some have already demonstrated that they’re prepared to pay respectable sums for it. The job seems ideally suited to the strategic end of the best account planning skills. The question is whether these clients will want to get such help from an advertising agency. What agencies, and the account planners in them, would have to do is above all, demonstrate that they have the breadth of vision and objectivity to do the job”

If we can only grasp the necessity of beginning our thinking with real consumer issues and needs, rather than what type of creative product (social, viral, advertising, content, POS, etc., etc.) we will make, or what line of fashionable rhetoric we will subscribe to, then we might stand a better chance of unleashing the true potential of our collective creativity.

Indeed we might at last start actually living up to the theory, claims, and promise of marketing.



Judie Lannon & Merry Baskin, eds., A Masterclass in Brand Planning: The Timeless Works of Stephen King

Josh Elman, ‘What Is “growth hacking” really?’

McKinsey & Company, The consumer decision journey