There is no such thing as a low-interest product, according to John Gerzema. In the hands of a smart marketer, any brand can step beyond its category and tap into what really matters to customers. The executive chairman of WPP Group's BAV Consulting would know - he's a pioneer at using data to identify social change and help companies anticipate and adapt to new interests and demands. As part of The Engagement Project, the best-selling author shared four ideas for creating engaging brand marketing that really matters.

Written by
John Gerzema
September 2013


Deliver value and values

Marketing isn’t about words anymore. It’s about actions. The best marketers understand a brand is about experiences and their job is to not just communicate, but engage. And this requires insights: You need to be out there understanding your customer; their journey and their relationship with your brand. For instance, Citibank launched Citibikes. Instead of more ads in a category where trust is nil, Citi offered a benefit to the community, and reframed themselves as a local brand rather than an opaque, multinational bank.

People have less disposable income; they are seeking value and values. So it’s important to align with your customers before you sell to them. This is where empathy helps achieve marketing goals. The MIT Age Lab, for instance, designed a suit that mimics aging. It’s called AGNES (Age Gain Now Empathy System). The suit dulls students’ eyesight and hearing; it’s heavy and puts pressure on joints making it hard to walk. Then they drive cars and try to reach for products on store shelves. This idea of heightened sensitivity, really living the experiences of customers is a new route to insights and innovation.

In reality, a brand is not a place, it’s a direction.

Always be moving

One clear challenge today is differentiation. Brands have to be different, better and special — but the pace of change means they also have to be continuously moving and evolving. At BAV, we call it brand energy. It’s about relentless differentiation; (it’s about) whether or not you’re actively attacking your own position and product so you’re continuously coming up with new ideas. This metric is comprised of consumer perceptions of a brand’s vision, invention and dynamism. Tom’s shoes is a brand people are both excited about for their material purpose and their greater purpose. When you buy into Tom’s, you are buying into something bigger than yourself and you believe the brand is heading somewhere.

Consumers ‘short’ and ‘long’ brands the way investors do stocks. Think about the brands you want in your life — whether it’s a refrigerator, a car, or a pair of shoes. We question whether that brand has future value. Is it is going to be there for us tomorrow and does it have lasting potential? The reverse is a scary place to be. If you’re not different and special — and you’re not innovating — you’re in a precarious state. In reality, a brand is not a place, it’s a direction.

Defy convention

It’s a fallacy that marketers have to play by the accepted norms of their category. If it is a low-interest purchase, make it low-interest, functional marketing. If it’s a car, make an ad with a winding road.

Many brands in low-interest categories are breaking away. Old Spice with their ‘The man your man could smell like.’ Dove’s foray into online video, Evolution reframed women’s beauty and they continued with this year’s Real Beauty Sketches.

Both brands took a commodity — deodorant, soap — and imbued them with emotion and energy. Pay less attention to convention and more to culture and shifting attitudes and values. Mine customer insights that are emotional and arresting. Marketers need to open up the aperture on their world and not think of competitors as those selling similar products or services. Recently BAV asked “which of the following brands would you open a bank account with?” The top brands weren’t banks; they were Amazon, Zappos, Google and Starbucks. It’s all about framing the world you see.

Tap into greatness

Sometimes I take myself outside of marketing and think of people who are doing really amazing things. One of my favorites is the University of the People. This is the world’s first online tuition-free university. Eighty percent of their students are in the bottom 20% of GDP producing countries and yet founder Shai Reshef has connected them to volunteer professors from Harvard, Stanford, Oxford — 2,500 teachers from the world’s best schools. So students without means are earning four-year college degrees. That’s outstanding! It speaks to the power of technology and people to think beyond existing structures.

Get out and be inspired by the great things that are happening. Disruptions like University of the People — and thousands more being invented in garages across the world — lift us all as a society. Look at these stories and escape the conventions of your category. Find new ways to be inspired, bring your customers new value and do something amazing.

John Gerzema’s latest book, The Athena Doctrine, is published by Jossey-Bass.