More Meaning. Less Messaging. 

What advertising can learn from technology companies. 

What’s the big idea? The advertising industry is obsessed with them. And for good reason — ideas are powerful and transformative. The industry has Awards Shows for them, Creative Directors make successful careers out of them and the best agencies proliferate them.

A few years ago, I began to to believe that ultimately meaning, usefulness and adding value trumps messaging — which is as far as most brand managers and agencies are willing take an idea.

Another way to put it is that advertising has reduced the notion of a “Big Idea” to a concept’s potential to seamlessly translate across a number of comms channels and strike metal at awards shows.

Seldom do Big Ideas translate into more value from the product or the experience one has when using it.

That’s precisely what startups have to do, and why I believe that the advertising and marketing process can learn a lot from tech and web startups.

Lesson #1: Never assume meaningfulness, create it.

What constantly blows my mind is how brand strategies start from the position that people actually give a damn about the brand in question. Target market analyses or core consumer descriptions are written from a brand centric perspective — as if “consumers” lives orbit around the sun of their lovely SKUs.

Tech startups always begin with one thing for certain: it doesn't matter how much money you have — no one knows you, no one cares about you and you have more chance of evaporating into a dead-pool of obscurity than ever meaning anything to your target market.

Lesson #2: Don’t confuse sales with ownership or loyalty

The assumption that “We owned X% of the sales in the last fiscal so we own X% of the market” is so monumentally flawed that i’m surprised it even gets stated that way in strategies – and yet it does. An example: I worked on a brand that lost 36% of its sales in a quarter. What did they do wrong/different? Nothing. A mad rush ensued to identify the “thief” that stole their market share.

The truth was it the market share was never theirs. They were borrowing it. And whatever sliver of equity or meaning they had in their consumer’s lives was wiped out by a small, likely benign enhancement in a competitor.

You can’t own a market or a share of it, because markets are people and people have free choice. Every tech startup knows that.

Empires like MySpace or Orkut rise and fall over the space of years. They understand that the concept of loyal users is a grand fallacy, that any equity they’ve built over years can be erased by a competitor doing something as simple as making the on-boarding process quicker.

The only way to ensure people stay and that more people come is by innovating — starting with the product itself, what it does and how it is used, consumed or delivered. Marketing never comes at the expense of that. Brand loyalty isn’t dead. It’s just as fickle as we are.

Lesson #3: People are not stupid

I hear this from agency people all the time, when explaining why anything from advertising messaging to promotion mechanics need to be simplified or dumbed down or why an idea wont work. It’s really just another symptom of the belief that your brand is the infallible centre around which your target market’s lives orbit.

People aren’t stupid. They’re busy trying to make the most of their lives and if you can’t convince them that what you’re selling does that, it’s probably because your product isn’t adding value, it’s just getting in the way.

The assumption any tech startup worth their salt begins with is that the user is the benchmark by which your “smartness” is measured. It’s a user-centric worldview.

The assumption is that your people are all you have and so you must go to them. If you make a grand product that no one gets, it’s because you lack the intelligence to make it seem intuitive. If a startup can’t convert they’ll consider that maybe their entire concept is flawed, and reinvent themselves (it’s called a pivot) how often will a brand truly and meaningfully do that?

Lesson #4: Stop giving people Badges and give them Substance.

What surprises me is the degree to which marketing teams and agencies obsess with “What it looks like.” Don’t for a moment get me wrong — this isn’t a rant against craft and striving for perfection in the way something is displayed — it’s a call for marketers, designers and everyone involved in the production of what’s seen to become more aware that the things unseen are actually more important.

The biggest crisis most brands face in my opinion is an integrity one; not of the moral variety but rather of substance. The information age is curing the world of veneer-based advertising. Designers, Strategists and everyone involved in communicating the product should have some platform to engage with client/manufacturers about what’s in the thing being sold.

Most brands face the problem that what they make or do doesn’t really add any value to anyone’s lives really — that’s a product issue, not a just a marketing one.

The world-changing case study that never was: One of my favourite examples of what’s possible when the people making the pretty get involved in the engine room of the product is F-I’s “fictional case study” for an airport website. The fact that it’s gorgeous is beside the point — in fact fact the real beauty of the case study lies in how it adds so much more value for a person in a fiercely competitive industry. There’s a reason why its a fictional case study; because no Airline has the foresight to see how marketing strategy and design can positively impact the product experience, not just the way the advertising looks.

Startups have an incredibly holistic perspective of the benefits of tying product engineering to design and visual aesthetics. Of course, it’s easier for them — there are less barriers, less issues with legacy infrastructure, and of course the production environment is virtual. But the key difference is that brands have one thing most startups don’t — money.

There was a time when advertisers gave a shit about what went on under the hood.

Please. Create Meaning. Not just Messages.

Some brands will never be able to change a user’s life. That’s perfectly fine. But what every brand does have is the potential to build human equity. That means to add some sort of human value to the lives of the people who buy, rent or subscribe to them.

I’m a firm believer that if you can find that dormant human equity or enhance the experience of the product, you’ll create meaning that adds so much more weight to your messaging. People need products and people need brands, but people need meaning and value more.

Startups have their own problems, but if ever there was an industry that brand and marketing teams needed to read about and immerse themselves in, it’s this one.

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