Marketing and advertising as we know it isn’t really working. Increasingly, it isn’t working for brands, for individual consumers or for the broader world. It’s essentially a broken and an outdated system.
It was a system designed before everyone had all the world’s information at their fingertips, before a single person could launch a global movement with a tweet, before transparency was the expectation and the norm. Companies operated in a world where they could create their own reality, hide behind a perception they had created and craft their reputation by sharing only what they wanted to share with the public.
The world is different now. Profoundly different. People have more power than they’ve ever had—and with mobile phones and the web we have everything we need to form our own opinion about a brand and share it with the entire world.
Problem is, we have become too invested in this system that doesn’t work anymore. The efficacy of all mediums of advertising are in steep decline. People can, and do, skip over expensive TV ads, most ignore digital ads (when was the last time you clicked on one) and a very small number see print ads anymore at all (magazine and newspapers have suffered). Some studies suggest that the cost of consumer attention is almost ten times as expensive today as it was in 1990 and rising.
Why hasn’t it changed?
How is it that companies around the world continue to spend $500 billion (and rising) annually on advertising that is decreasing in efficacy? It’s because the system today is a continually reinforcing cycle where CMOs make a safe and sensible bet and select proven agencies filled with award winning people to make innovative, beautiful and compelling ads. And then to help them break through with consumers billions are spent with the media companies who rely on this advertising to survive.
It’s self-perpetuating — continually churning out brilliant creative work and generating business for the advertising and media industries but having diminishing results for business and not having much meaningful impact on the broader world. All of these valuable resources including the human capital are being spent desperately trying to convince consumers to pay attention to their brands and products. Not only can it sometimes be annoying for consumers, it seems like a waste of resources and a big missed opportunity.
Paul Polman the CEO of Unilever said five years ago that “‘If I project ourselves out five or 10 years, then I don’t see Unilever as an advertiser, I see us as a solutions provider. I see us as a co-creator, with the consumer, of mainstream sustainable living.” This hasn’t happened yet, but it is the kind of thinking that can lead to a significant shift in how we think about brands and their role in our world.
How we start to fix it
What if marketing was different? What if the creativity and financial resources could be repurposed by brands to solving the issues people deeply care about and working with people to improve our world? And what if this investment could drive the same metrics marketing was supposed to be moving — brand consideration, advocacy and purchase?
It starts with a shift of mindset. We have to change how we think about consumers and start to view them as capable people who have a deep interest in reshaping and improving the world around them. Rather than just passive endpoints to brand communication, we should see people as powerful leaders who can be partners with brands to make big impact. Also, we need to start recognizing brands as institutions of people with a shared interest in tackling the world’s challenges—that also have the ability and resources to be effective at having an impact.
We also need to shift priorities and the allocation of resources. To win in the long term, companies will need to start to see their marketing budgets not just as blunt tools to broadcast their company’s point of view and product messages with the hope of breaking through. But instead these funds can be an investment to fuel their businesses goals by mobilizing millions of people around shared success and common missions. Companies can begin to lead movements for real impact. This would certainly get as much if not more attention as today’s TV ads or banner ads. And build an army of loyal brand advocates.
Just this week, the Mars Corporation announced a $1 billion dollar investment in a new sustainability effort, citing a changing consumer environment and emphasizing “it is good for business”. “Mars has been in business for four generations and intends to be for the next four generations,” Grant F. Reid, the food company’s chief, said.
Finally, we need to understand that our creative human capital needs to be redeployed. It is a powerful and underutilized asset. Today, many of our most creative people are spending most of their time making poignant, beautiful, and funny ads for the brands that fill our lives and our media spaces. Let’s find a way to unleash and deploy our human creativity in ways that inspire and mobilize the world around solving our biggest challenges. What if our most creative people could be freed up and compensated by brands to spend their time on the 17 UN Global Sustainability Goals instead of Super Bowl ads?
Brands as engines of change
With governments seeming less effective in their ability to galvanize people and non-profits often lacking the resources, it is natural that brands are increasingly becoming powerful engines of social change. Many businesses have embraced this role leading with words and more and more their deeds.
By repurposing their marketing dollars and deploying their human creative capital for a bigger mission for the world, brands would likely see greater returns than with traditional marketing. This would also foster the kind of loyalty and advocacy from customers that would support long term viability of their business. It’s good for business and the world.
We live in a time of big challenges and also great opportunity. Ultimately, it will be the businesses that seize this opportunity to help solve our biggest challenges that will be rewarded and will win the future.
The world depends on it.