Image Credit: Huffington Post

The “Death of Advertising” (and other myths)

“We don’t want it to look, feel, or smell like advertising”.

As I heard those words during a recent conversation they got me thinking. Has the word “advertising” become pariah? What are brands, no wait, successful brands doing these days that is seen, at a superficial level, as walking away from “advertising”?

Lets start with a jog down memory lane. My first job was selling online advertising. This started prior to the heady days of the dotcom boom. Back in 1998 one was more likely to be greeted by a quizzical expression and a putdown rather than a please-take-my-money when selling online ads. “I really think the internet is going to be just for email.” said a brand manager at a global food company to me when I suggested an ad buy for a chocolate brand. “Do you really think people want to research or buy clothes on the internet? I don’t!” said a marketing honcho at a global clothing company.

As a 22 year old I did not have smart answers for the push backs. All I knew was that the internet, and the instant access to information it sponsored, was going to be a game changer for advertisers. My belief was what kept me going back to reluctant brands with proposal after proposal. A slow trickle of “yes” soon became an avalanche and, despite the historical bust of 2001, digital advertising was here to stay.

Fast forward 17 years and the majority of my job-titles have had the word “advertising” in them. I have been fortunate to have worked on iconic brands, in a number of countries, and learn the fundamentals that make advertising critical to business success.

One learning is that most brands can be divided into two categories:

  1. Brands founded on products so compelling and so breakthrough, that the role of advertising is to raise awareness in an engaging way accreative to the brand — I humbly submit Apple and BMW as the pre-eminent examples.
  2. Brands that are competing in categories so competitive, and are so vulnerable to customer switching, that advertising has to help create an emotional connection with the brand well beyond awareness. It has to make you believe that this and only this brand is for someone like you. I would put iconic brands like American Express and Coca-Cola into this category.

Then there is a 3rd, rare category:

3. Brands that are founded on a human-truth (or to put it simply, brands that succeed by facilitating a compelling way for people to do what comes naturally). Starbucks is a prime example. It facilitates what people inherently seek. Moments of connection with other humans. The role of advertising here is not just to raise awareness of specific products but also facilitate a 2-way conversation. Sometimes directly, sometimes by sparking a thought.

Here is the kicker: Advertising is critical, in different ways, to all three.

So why the recent reticence?

I think this has more to do with a confusion around what advertising is rather than a sudden realization that advertising is inherently bad.

To me advertising is not just in-your-face messaging whose sole purpose is to generate sales. It goes well beyond that. Advertising is ground zero for a dialog between a brand and its consumers. A conversation that can flex from being educational to emotional to entertaining. It is the brand reaching out to and connecting with its consumers in a personal way. It is the welcome tap on the shoulder, not the noise one expects from commerce.

One of my favorite ads of the last 5 years does just that. This video from Nike brilliantly presents the confluence of a relevant story (Tiger ceding his title to Rory) and Nike’s offering (golf equipment and clothing). It is emotional and engaging. Never gratuitous. And, unlike what one might expect, much longer than traditional notions of advertising.

This is where advertising needs to be and increasingly is. While video epitomizes the pinnacle of advertising (due to its mix of sight and sound) increasingly advertisers are using many, many more ways to reach out to and speak with their audience.

That post on Instagram? Advertising. That response to a Tweet? Advertising. That filter on SnapChat? Advertising. And yes, all those videos posted on YouTube? Advertising.

None of them have a starburst, price-point, or 800 number attached to them. What they all have in common is being lean-in experiences, inviting engagement, and giving a face to the brand.

So, to come full circle:

“We don’t want it to look, feel, or smell like advertising”.

I humbly submit that we do want it to look, feel, and smell like advertising. Just advertising that is an authentic, honest reflection of the brand. Advertising that consumers can relate to. And advertising that improves their perception of the brand.