Michael de Souza
Oct 9, 2013

It’s time for marketers to stop sprinkling glitter

…and start making stuff.

Michael de Souza
Michael de Souza

Digital technology has given us a range of insanely powerful opportunities to transform the way in which brands position themselves to their customers.

Storytelling’s no longer the only tool that we have to create positive brand disposition. And we no longer have to limit ourselves to the constraints of other people’s templates (the 10 second spot, the double-page spread, or any other interruptive ad unit — digital or traditional).

Brands can (and should) now be building digital experiences that are useful, entertaining and enticing enough for their customers to flock towards.

We now have the opportunity to shift our approach to stop making people want things, and start making things that people want.

The classic example of this shift comes from Nike. In a visionary move six or seven years ago, they invited R/GA, their digital agency, to participate in their ideation process. The result was a revolutionary idea—a web-based software platform called Nike+.

Their brand promise—that if you have a body, you are an athlete—was elegantly embodied in a platform that allows you to see your activity tracked with graphs and stats, just like a pro.

Nike is now more than mere footwear and apparel company. It’s become a software and services company with an engaging set of insights and utilities. By the time the platform evolved to the level of the Fuelband, your entire physical experience (even sleep) could be tracked and branded.

Sure, they still run masterful ad campaigns to tell stories about their platform and maintain awareness, but this isn’t their core focus.

Just as Nike has done, every brand now has the imperative to think like a startup, and become a software and services company too.

Why? Because customers are more savvy and cynical than ever. They know that talk’s cheap, and they need hard evidence if they’re to be convinced that your fizzy sugary drink, hatchback car or credit card is better than anyone else’s.

They need you to build a concrete brand promise, and express it through a set of coherent, ritualised behaviours.

Whereas traditional advertising focuses on telling stories—crafting narratives that generate an emotional resonance and set of associations that embody a brand promise, it’s now up to the advertising and marketing industry to transcend storytelling.

Creativity, in 2013, doesn’t lie in crafting narratives, no matter how good we’ve become at that following decades of practice. Creativity lies in creating systems, platforms and new media channels.

These systems frame customer behaviours. They’re useful, enticing or entertaining enough to adopt. Unlike campaigns, they’re always on. And they provide experiences that people really want.

The problem is that the vast majority of agencies and marketing teams are still working as storytellers, dominated by ‘campaign thinking’, churning out clever narratives intended to make people want stuff.

The new opportunity calls for restructuring—on both the client side and the agency side, becuase the concept of a ‘marketing division’ is increasingly problematic. (Is Nike+ a marketing solution, or a core part of their business? Is this a campaign, or a long term service that spans the whole organisation?)

The right digital agency partner has the tools to address the strategies and objectives of the broader organisation, not just the narrow prerogatives of the marketing division.

If agencies are to go beyond ‘sprinkling glitter’, and innovating their clients’ core services and products, it’s up to them to start moving upstream in their conversations, and addressing the needs of all stakeholders in the brand, not just the marketing department.

Likewise, when brands appoint an agency, it’s their responsibility to do more than ask for the latest showreel. They should be asking, “What’s the last cool thing that you built?”

Michael de Souza is general manager for Mobext in Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam.

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