Marketing’s last stand: evolve before media-spend implodes

(Originally Published in Hub Magazine, this article led Landor’s Perspectives anthology in 2011 and was highly commended at the same year’s Atticus prize)

They say time flies when you’re having fun. Perhaps it flies even faster when you’re confused. Even though the first commercial website, O’Reilly Media’s GNN, launched nearly two decades ago, in August 1993, the marketing community’s attitude toward the Internet is still split between two mutually exclusive attitudes, which eye each other suspiciously.

On one side we have the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed evangelical digital radicals, declaring digital to be the end of marketing as we know it, if not the end of marketing, period. On the other side, glaring at them with contempt are the traditional conservatives who declare “people are people,” gripe that it’s all hype, and say: “Okay, okay–maybe we’ll give the ad agency a tiny sliver of the budget to experiment with this ‘online.’”

In their heart of hearts (as it is no longer acceptable to admit this out loud) the conservatives simply do not understand the excitement. The radicals say that the conservatives have not seen the–no doubt, electric blue–digital light.

While digital marketers’ fascination with the latest and greatest does make them susceptible to hype, the old-school camp’s resistance holds back progress. Dare we say that even when “markets are conversations,” it doesn’t mean “branding is dead?” Maybe it’s just branding as we know it that should die.

Surprisingly, if one examines the three fundamental tensions that make the Internet such a challenging medium for marketing, the seemingly conflicting agendas of the old and new schools of marketing are reconciled. Within these three tensions lie valuable insights into the future of marketing.

1. Differentiation versus usability. For decades, marketing strategy and brand management have been dedicated to differentiation. In a global world, where accelerating competition drives products and services toward similarity, standing out from the crowd is crucial.

The goal of branding has long been to create relevant differentiation for a brand. However, in digital environments there is an opposite pull. In order for anything to be usable, it needs to be intuitive–and intuitive means familiar. And familiarity calls for “more of the same.”

Have a look at the homepages of the leading search engines, e-commerce, and newspaper sites and you’ll see similarity in interface elements, perhaps masked by a different look and feel. The paradoxical solution? Be completely fresh in an utterly familiar way. Now there’s a tough brief.

2. How stories are told. Analyze any brand strategy framework and you’ll find that they all try to weave brand attributes into narratives, which aim to contextualize and give the brand meaning. They define what the brand is, how it relates to the world, how it relates to its audiences and what it promises them, what its role is in its category, and how it stands out from the competition.

Once a narrative is defined, it should be extended through every possible touchpoint. While this has never been completely linear storytelling, it has been driven, for the good part of the last century, by print, radio, and television advertising. Bringing the brand story to life through experiences has always taken a backseat.

The digital environment fractures brands more than ever, as they are now seen and heard everywhere in our lives on a record number of channels and platforms. Crowds move through digital environments in multiple, complicated, crossing paths. If that isn’t enough, people often reinvent how they use digital environments and, on occasion, will use digital tools to deconstruct a brand story and rebuild it to suit their own purposes.

On a good day, they will bastardize carefully considered creative work through fan art. On a bad one they will set up While most deconstructions disappear into obscurity, the more prominent your brand is the more likely some of those user-generated interpretations will hit critical mass and reach an audience of millions. Did I mention that bad news is more likely to go viral?

These elements of digital storytelling, which are nonlinear, decentralized, and participatory, are at odds with traditional marketing storytelling–a more linear telling, in an authoritative voice, speaking in broadcast mode.

3. Attention scarcity. The Internet has compounded an unavoidable problem in marketing: The more messages we put out there, the better potential customers become at ignoring them. And the better they become at ignoring them, the more often marketers must repeat a message in hope that they’ll hear and see it, which means spending more money.

The heart of the problem is that in pure evolutionary terms, when humans pay attention to something, they expect a reward. Paying attention is just too important. Its importance ranges from being the most critical survival mechanism to being the stuff from which intimacy is made–which is only one reason why marketing wants it so badly.

Unfortunately, marketers have broken the rules. For many years, marketing masqueraded the meaningless as meaningful. Even when the message had meaning for some audiences, it would be bundled with distracting, irrelevant noise designed to attract disproportionate attention and create an illusion of (mostly emotional) rewards.

The Internet, while compounding the problem with its billion-channel universe and constant bombardment of digital distraction through multiple devices, also rises to provide people with tools that make attention management more efficient.

Think about how Facebook exposes users to new content: Instead of sifting through updates on their own, people see a single feed that attempts to estimate what they will find most important and what is worth their attention, based on the content consumption patterns of their social network. While the feed combines meaningful information with lots of nonsensical entertainment, even that can be considered collectively sanctioned frivolity.

One can no longer increase the onslaught of media in proportion to the decreasing amount of available attention–in a financially sound way anyway. Brands are polar bears watching human attention disappearing from under their feet.

Just as product manufacturers are switching over to environmentally sustainable production methods, marketing needs to treat scarcity of human attention with a more “sustainable” approach to the cost structure of media.



Waiting for miracles

In October 2006, Dove’s Evolution advertisement launched online as part of its Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, and became one of the most successful digital branding stories of all time. This modestly budgeted $50,000 piece got 12,000,000 views in its first year online, with tens of millions more views through YouTube, email, and more. The ad won two Cannes Lions Grand Prix awards and an Epica D’Or.

The monetary value of voluntary media coverage Dove received as a result of Evolution reached an estimated $150 million. In comparison, Dove’s Self-Esteem Fund Super Bowl commercial cost $2.5 million to make, reached an audience of 500 million, and generated only a third of the boost in traffic to the campaign site as Evolution did. Unilever reported a 3.9 percent year-on-year increase in sales globally–due largely to the $50,000 online ad.

A year later, Dove tried to repeat Evolution’s success with a clip called Onslaught, which, no doubt, not many have seen and even fewer remember. It wasn’t nearly as successful and actually drew criticism and inspired parodies that mocked its dishonesty. One parody was made by Greenpeace and was intended to spearhead a campaign against Unilever for its alleged destruction of forests for coconut oil farming. Dove only got industry awards this time around.

What set Dove’s two efforts apart? Simply put: If brands ask for attention, they need to pay for it with an honest, valuable, interesting, and unique message. They need to exchange attention for something of value. If messages do not offer something new, they will not rise above the rest.

Marketing can no longer masquerade as credible and relevant. Any marketing that falls into the old-school habit of making the trivial look and feel important will be filtered out, not only by individuals but also by the hyper-connected societies they belong to.

Oversimplified stories that claim undeserved authority will be swiftly deconstructed. Forced, artificial differentiation will create empty novelties that subvert usability and will be avoided.

We have come full circle: The new-school digital discourse around attention scarcity meets the old-school requirements for credibility, relevance, and differentiation. The Internet will not kill marketing; it will force us to fix it. Every brand that wants to be a part of this future will need to take a long hard look at itself and find new ways to provide real value.


Attention-worthy marketing: some examples

This is by no means a framework for the direction marketing should take. Rather, it is a collection of examples united by respect for the way human attention is wired and how priceless it has become.


Orange’s RockCorps reaches out to youths and their communities by offering the opportunity to trade hours of community volunteering for concert tickets. Orange is spending marketing money on creating societal value instead of attempting to fight media overload with more media.

Digital gaming companies like Id and Valve have released the engines and level editors of their games for the gaming community to play with. This sustains consumer interest in their leading franchises between sequels.

Activision recently wised up too, and after initial resistance, allowed fans to create a standalone adventure game under its nostalgic-yet dormant-for-years-King’s Quest franchise. Giving away intellectual property can make business sense: just ask technology companies who engage with open source communities. Gamers taking time to create with a brand, or enjoying others’ creations, is valuable, highly targeted marketing.


Innocent’s Big Knit rallies thousands of volunteers to knit little hats for smoothie bottles to raise money for the elderly. The hat-wearing bottles stand out, sell more, and are effective at raising money for charity. User-generated ad content is old, questionable news. This is guerrilla marketing outsourced to the customers with the price paid in charitable donations.

Apple has integrated its hardware and its content distribution platform as a free application for the Mac and PC: iTunes. While this is questionable when it comes to digital rights management, it simplifies users’ lives by making music and other media available at the click of a mouse or tap of a touch screen.


Even traditional television advertising can improve its worthiness. Over the last five years, a U.K. television campaign by British Telecom (BT) has consisted of a series of 35 ads that work together as a bite-size romantic comedy, telling the story of single-guy Adam who meets divorced-with-kids Jane, and how their relationship touches their friends and families.

It has become the longest running U.K. campaign and is much loved by the public. BT uses these adverts to promote its multiple offerings and to introduce telecom service convergence. But more important, it gives audiences characters to care about, offers meaningful insights into the role of digital communications in our closest relationships, and positively depicts a nonnuclear, nontraditional family.

These examples all point to ways of marketing that are more authentic, focus on value creation, and better use the attention spent on communication between brand and customer.

The very best examples succeed in connecting these new ways of interaction to the essential meaning of the brand they are marketing. This suggests that the first step in creating this sustainable and valuable type of marketing is figuring out who you are and what you stand for.

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