Calm marketing

Gareth Kay
Feb 12 · 4 min read

A school of UX design thought posits that technology can become more useful to people if it becomes calm, that it should inform and create calm, that it should take up the smallest possible amount of attention. How might these principles help the advertising industry’s situation?

I’m writing this the day after the Superbowl (or, as some of my friends on Boston have taken to calling it, ‘the New England Invitational’). It’s the annual coming out party for the advertising industry in America: weeks of leaks of the work followed by the post mortem on local TV shows. Recriminations and post mortems are held by agency and client teams based on any metric from ‘likability’ in the USA Today Admeter to online share of voice.

Lots of money — about $5 million for 30 seconds and all the money for production and endorsements — is spent on trying to get a bit of fame. It’s always puzzled me how loose the tie to any commercial metric exists in the process. Even more puzzling is the counter intuitive logic that to stand out and be noticed you’ll run to the same place where 40 other advertisers are running to give it their very best shot to achieve exactly the same outcome in a moment when people tend to be refilling their glasses and plates. The whole thing feels like the ‘advertising bubble’. And given the context of some events that occurred in the weeks the hype felt even more jarring this year than most.

First, was Marc Pritchard, CMO of Procter and Gamble, the world’s biggest advertiser. At CES, on a panel talking about technology, he said a pretty remarkable thing: “I would say that the days of advertising as we know it today are numbered. We need to start thinking about a world with no ads.”

That’s right, the CMO of the world’s biggest advertiser encouraged the industry to think about a world with no ads. A company that is estimated to spend around $7 billion a year globally on advertising questioned that investment. And as we’ve seen before, where P&G go, others tend to quickly follow.

Pritchard was embracing the power of technology to transform products and place them more centrally in the brand building experience, referencing Olay’s Skin Advisor and SK-II’s AI retail concept. Essentially, he was making the argument for moving back to a model of building differentiation through the experience. Of doing things, not just saying things.

Second was the data shared in London at the Advertising Association conference by their think tank, Credos. They shared data that showed that in the UK (and I think this is a fair proxy for most developed markets) that public favorability towards advertising hit a record low of 25 in December 2018, almost halved from where it stood 25 years earlier.

This decline was driven, according to Credos, by concerns over the sheer volume of advertising people are exposed to (so it looks like we can’t spam our way out of this problem), repetition (hello painfully inept retargeting), obtrusiveness (stop getting in the way of what I want to do) and irrelevance (the continuing ignorance we tend to place around context).

So more evidence, from clients and people, that advertising faces some significant problems. We are continuing to spam ourselves into irrelevance. We no longer entertain or inform but annoy. And, as a result, we end up with all the data we see year in and out from the Havas Meaningful Brand survey with less people caring about brands and their communication than ever before. Lest we forget, the last report (at a global level) suggested people would not care if ¾ of brands disappeared tomorrow and nearly 2/3 of content we produce on behalf of brands is seen as clutter. Not a good school report….

I wonder that as an industry marketing needs to make some serious adjustments to how it operates. It doesn’t mean changing what we’ve already done by 2% but rather to look for a new map that might ignite commercial gain through being more useful and valuable to people. One such approach might be to look at some adjacent spaces.

Amber Case is a UX designer (and cyborg anthropologist) who has built on the work in the 1960s of Mark Weiser at Xerox PARC to develop a set of principles that make technology more useful to people by making it more calm. Here are her 8 principles:

  1. Technology should require the smallest possible amount of attention
  2. Technology should inform and create calm
  3. Technology should make use of the periphery
  4. Technology should amplify the best of technology and the best of humanity
  5. Technology can communicate, but doesn’t need to speak
  6. Technology should work even when it fails
  7. The right amount of technology is the minimum needed to solve the problem
  8. Technology should respect social norms

Calm technology is about answering the question that, in a world made of information that competes for our attention, what is necessary and what is not?

Maybe restricting what we do, being a little quieter, being more human might lead to a different type of marketing. Maybe it’s time for calm marketing to establish itself.

I’ll explore how this might take shape next month.

Originally published in WARC February 2019

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