As we become progressively immersed in the digital layer, tomorrow’s marketing campaigns will stand out if they manage to affect our real, non-digital, selves.
It first occurred to me when I was a student. I was walking through the campus of the University of Cape Town, desperately seeking a vending machine to satisfy my sudden craving for a Coke. Being a self-aware person, I realized that these cravings had recurred for the last 3 weeks.
So, without any previous affinity for Coke, I thought back to what had changed. Three weeks prior, I had run my first ever 10km race. It dawned on me that at the finish line, in an unassuming feat of marketing mastery, Coca Cola had set up a booth to hand out cups of coke to finishing runners.
Had I stopped to think about it, it might have seemed strange that Coca Cola would invest its marketing resources here: A slightly arbitrary, community-feel marathon that ended in an isolated vineyard in the Cape wine lands. They could have spent that money on billboards, TV campaigns, social media or a number of other, more obvious platforms. And lest we forget, it takes audacity for a sugary, fizzy drink to blasphemously impose itself on a holy site for the healthy and fit.
But, then again, in the calculated thinking of a marketing giant, nothing is coincidental: For 3 weeks following the race, what I had been experiencing were the reverberations of an endorphin rush — a rush that I had learnt to associate with Coke.
Associations are nothing new in advertising. In fact, digital marketing is based on associations (one of the reasons why personal data has become so valuable). The question is: what kind of associations will stand out in a world that is saturated by them?
Which associations will endure? Which ones will achieve immortality and splendor? Which ones will stand out, win awards and be etched in the hall of fame of all things marketing ?
If Coca Cola’s genius is anything to go by, the great associations will be those connected to true experience.
Experience. Think about that word for a moment. When was the last time you truly experienced something? When was the last time you — not your social media “you” experienced something? Do we still know the difference? I would argue that we largely do not, so long as the suffocating digital layer continues to engulf more aspects of our lives.
What coke capitalized on then - and continues to do so now (they still set up free drink booths at marathons) - is the fact that experience is more powerful than its digital manifestations. At the end of the day, the picturesque vineyard in the Cape Winelands, the bursting sense of accomplishment from finishing a race, and of course the great physical feeling of an endorphin-rush , were precisely the DNA of a uniquely high experience. After coming down from that high, I wanted to recapture it — so naturally, I wanted Coke.
Experience is the reason why Red Bull - via an extended campaign associating the brand with the thrill of obscure and extreme sports events - emerged from the pangs of oddity to dominate an estimated 43% share of the energy drink market in 2018. Today, we don’t think twice when we see a Red Bull space jump and Formula One car.
There are brands that have even managed to permeate the definitive medium of experience: language. It turns out that a critical mass of Brits have experienced something pervasive enough, such that a “Cheeky Nandos,” is a regular component of British cultural vernacular. Similarly, “Netflix and Chill” is testament to their success in capturing a part of the human experience that we all all know, well, sells.
Then there’s Oakley — perhaps in a league of its own. In 2010, in what is known as “The Chilean mining accident,” 33 Chilean miners had been trapped underground for nearly 70 days. A large-scale, cooperative rescue operation was on the verge of commencing. All the major media outlets were waiting, cameras in hand, at the extraction site. An enormous global audience had amassed in electric anticipation.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, experts knew that after living underground with hardly any exposure to light, the miners would need to be wearing sunglasses upon resurfacing.
The world watched (and together, experienced) ecstatic, highly-charged and overwhelmingly-emotional scenes of the miners surfacing one-by-one, reuniting with their families. Of course, they were brandishing an iconic “O” on their upper cheekbones. For the mere price of 33 sunglasses that they had sent down to the miners, Oakley generated an estimated $41 million in equivalent advertising, — and arguably, a lot more, if you consider the unquantifiable worth of associating the brand with that unique, global experience.
The canvas on which tomorrow’s feats of marketing genius will be painted, therefore, will not be screens nor billboards, but our consciousness. Tomorrow’s marketing giants will not merely utilize Facebook and data-driven market intelligence, but neural pathways and endorphins. They will penetrate the social media blur and find our disenfranchised souls hiding behind the fog, desperate for affirmation.
In a modernity-obsessed environment in which unfiltered, raw experience is ever-hard to come by; in which realness is marginalized, neglected and displaced — true experience is indeed more fleeting. Yet therein lies both a curse and an opportunity: The contrast between true experience and filtered experience will be more pronounced, and will present opportunities for the giants to step out of the shadows and blow their competitors out the water.
So, to the advertisers who want to stand out: Find a way to intelligently relate to the true us instead of what market intelligence claims we are. Speak to us when we run, when we hope and when we achieve. Speak to us smack in the middle of life’s most potent experiences — I’m thinking free Huggies care packages for new moms in maternity wards. Think big and out the box.
Remember that there is something — albeit hard to define — that transcends artificial intelligence and makes us human. Have the courage to appeal to - dare I say it - our infinite and immortal souls, and your brand will achieve immortality too.