As global planning director at Young & Rubicam, Sandy Thompson hunts for the human truths that drive consumer behavior. She sees that attitudes toward brands are changing incredibly quickly, and in this piece Thompson explains how brands can connect with today's savvy consumers: by embracing an attitude of fearlessness in their marketing.

Written by
Sandy Thompson
Published
April 2014
Topics

You’re at a dinner party, sitting between two people you’ve never met. They’re both lovely but very different. The person on your left talks about only one thing—she’s a bit one-dimensional. The person on your right seems comfortable talking about everything. She’s got character. Naturally, your attention is drawn to her. In fact, if you get stuck talking to the person on your left, you might look to the one on the right to save you.

The same goes for brands. Many brands used to be like our one-dimensional dinner companion, with marketers pushing a single-minded proposition over and over. Advertisers focused on a couple of touchpoints (television and maybe some print ads) and would ask themselves: “What is the one thing you want to tell people about your brand?”

That doesn’t work anymore. Now your brand is more important than ever—it’s everything! Consumers have short attention spans and more control over the brands they interact with. They tune out anything that bores them. To grab and hold their attention, brands must be the diner on the right—the one with the compelling character and opinions. This requires a certain amount of fearlessness from marketers, and I expect to see more brands adopting a fearless attitude in their marketing strategies.

So, what does it mean for a brand to be fearless? I’d say brutal honesty, the ability to harness tensity, speed and the willingness to incorporate the audience.

Brutal honesty

I'm loving the retail brand Patagonia right now. It’s all about the outdoors, so it strives to be green and reduce its footprint. But it also does a good job of saying where it’s not reducing and, perhaps more importantly, why. Patagonia isn’t perfect, but it’s honest, and I love it for that. Because, guess what? I don’t know any person or brand that’s perfect. If you are honest, odds are I’ll like you better despite any imperfections. And dishonesty is much riskier now that just about everything is discoverable.

I'm a big believer that brands can have vulnerabilities—that imperfections lead to depth of character and ultimately make brands more intriguing. At Y&R, we call this “tensity.”

Harness your “tensity”

Tensity is the narrative arc that brands need to be effective storytellers. Take Land Rover, for instance. Its image is rugged and hardworking, yet it’s also luxury, giving it an alluring duality. Or Marilyn Monroe. What made her irresistible was the combination of innocence and sex appeal. Depth of character is absolutely counterintuitive for brands, which usually champion one or two attributes and miss out on chances to humanize themselves and captivate consumers.

Some brands are getting it, though. I’m a fan of Subway’s “The 4 to 9ers,” a series of original webisodes that definitely have some tensity. A lot of kids’ first jobs cover the after-school work shift (4:00 to 9:00 p.m.) at a mall, so Subway tells their stories. The brand plays a central role, yet the series doesn’t hammer the brand into the storylines, which are more honest and fearless than I’d expect from a company describing the joys and drudgery of working at a mall.

Depth of character is absolutely counterintuitive for brands, which usually champion one or two attributes and miss out on chances to humanize themselves and captivate consumers.

There’s a lot of missed opportunity in the travel industry. Right now, there is a lot of generic “get this room at this rate” and pictures of horses galloping on beaches. But getting “heads in beds” and showing beautiful imagery don’t seem enough anymore. There’s a lack of genuine emotional connection. Expedia was getting somewhere with its Find Yours campaign, which urged people to think bigger about their vacation options. It focused on the travelers themselves. It tapped into this whole notion of discovering yourself and changing who you are as opposed to just taking a holiday. I love that idea because it makes me stop and think, and perhaps go on a new type of holiday. Brand promises are always tricky because a brand cannot own a message easily. Moments of fearlessness are nice, but they have to lead to full brand mindset shifts.

Work harder and faster

These days, the ways a brand can connect with the consumer are just incredible! It's exciting! It makes us work harder and faster as marketers to ensure that we're available to people on the appropriate channels during those crucial, fleeting moments when they’re willing to engage. Consumers can choose to engage or not—a decision they make in a heartbeat.

Years ago, if someone wanted to buy a car, they’d take six months to decide, visiting five different dealerships, test driving several vehicles and talking to friends and parents. Today, people bypass a lot of that because they can do their research online at home and make a decision much more quickly. They peruse automakers’ websites, read reviews on car blogs, and play with car customization tools to find the perfect paint color. They learn everything they need, and often even make a purchase decision, before setting foot in a dealership.

The scary part for marketers is that consumers can also make a decision not to buy a car just as quickly. As a marketer, you have to be working at the same pace as your potential customers, constantly getting fresh, relevant information in front of them. You also have to be fearless about your media mix. It’s no longer just about traditional versus digital advertising. To me, that’s ridiculous. Brands need to be daring and experimental in their approach. And if they want to respond to the faster pace of decision making with faster information delivery, they need to be fearless in digital channels, even if they don’t have as much experience there.

Incorporate the audience

We work so hard to ensure that clients’ brands are manicured, perfectly presented and shiny, but that doesn’t really work, does it? We push our idealized version of the brand, but our opinion doesn’t matter as much as the consumers’ opinions, which can be developed in a thousand ways. They’ll share them with their network, and that impacts brand perceptions more than anything you or I could say.

One of my clients, Crystal Cruise, is doing some really neat stuff with user-generated marketing. It’s fearless enough to give passengers the ability to comment on the brand and really build it. After all, people trust their friends’ experiences more than they trust advertisements. Letting customers comment and post videos, reviews and photos requires fearlessness, especially when allowing the negative reviews to co-exist alongside the positive ones. More and more travel brands are taking this step, but are they doing it enough? I don’t think so. I think marketers are still afraid to have a bit of tension in their brands and to have a bit of stretch in terms of the depth of character and personality.

Bring data into the game…earlier

When we think of fearless advertisers, it’s easy to imagine archetypal creative directors who boldly throw out the data and trust their gut. But I think it’s much more fearless to gather as much data as possible to inform and inspire strategy and creative earlier on. Many clients pour money into measuring how their work performs, but they’re using the metrics too late. It’s incredibly helpful to use that information sooner in the process, to inform the business objectives and challenges. If you put some of that money into the front end of the campaign, you can use that data differently to figure out where you're going instead of where you’ve been.

And then, once a campaign is live, continue gathering as much data as possible to figure out how to fix what’s broken, and emphasize the campaign elements that are clicking with people.

As I said before, adopting an attitude of fearlessness isn’t easy. We’re afraid of making mistakes because there is so much at stake, like our client relationships, the brand’s perception and even our own jobs. And we will inevitably make mistakes—but when a fearless brand does, it will go back, retest and try new things.

Our lives are messy, and how we form our perceptions of brands is also messy. The sheer number of available options for brands—digital, social, content and search, along with all the more traditional brand channels—can be daunting. As marketers, we can respond to the messiness and complexity by getting defensive and picking a few safe-and-simple marketing channels and talking points. Or we can go the other way and develop the depth of character, tensity and quick pace that will keep people interested. After all, some consumers might just fall in love with that fascinating dinner companion on the right.