“Planning should start not with what ads do to people, but with what people do with ads.”
—JWT’s Stephen King, in an address to the 13th Asian Advertising Congress, 1982.
I was at an brand planning conference in 2010 when, after a long night of presentations on the very latest communication theories, the audience was asked to indicate by a show of hands which methodology they would put their money on to outlast the decade.
Neuromarketing had a few rowdy enthusiasts. Herd-marketing raised half a dozen hands. Qualitative research pipped data slicing, but that old chestnut “the voice of the customer inside the agency” pipped both. In the end, engagement theory was narrowly beaten by behavioural economics.
As the claps and jeers were dying down, a voice at the back of the room was heard to murmur, “Phenomenology?”
A pin hit the floor with a resounding clang.
With the new decade knocking insistently on the door, it’s clear that the years haven’t been kind to the breezy assumptions we made about human nature that night. Neuromarketing is on life-support; herd-marketing has gone the way of the unmourned tipping point; the opinion of the customer has turned out to be as reliable as facts in the mouths of populists; engagement theory has metastasised into clickbait, and behavioural economics has become as novel as common sense.
Given the rise of ad-blocking and the consequent crisis of faith in advertising that’s driving so many venerable agency brands to the wall, it remains a singular mystery why the planning community hasn’t turned for inspiration to the strategic model that invented brand planning in the first place.
Stephen King was a phenomenologist in everything but name. While the Stanley Pollitt school of strategic planning pored over the oracular utterings of punters obliged to explain their preference for Brand X over Brand Y, King was examining with rare and refreshing candour the mental phenomena presented to him by brands and their claims to our attention — in other words, what people do with ads.
A little introspection goes a long way. Without it we’re inclined to assume that brands are brands, conceptually equal in form if not in substance. From there we’re only a short step away from succumbing to the logical fallacy known as the Law of Instrument, first formulated by American psychologist Abraham Kaplan in his 1964 observation, “Give a small boy a hammer and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.”
Strategic templates are the hammers we use to pound brand communications into satisfyingly familiar shapes and sizes. We have all worked with them; some of us have invented them. They are the brand onions, brand essences, brand funnels and the other brand animals, vegetables and minerals that fill the cabinet of planning’s curiosities. Some of them are useful sometimes; all of them are handicapped by the assumption that customers, i.e. people like us, use the same or a similar mental process to interpret the claims of all conceivable product and service brands.
It’s simply not true. What we do with ads depends on our orientation to the category occupied by the brand in question — or what we buy to get what.
No one buys a Rolex to get a watch: the physical thing is bought to acquire the brand. In the case of FMCG brands the opposite applies: the brand is bought to get the thing. We buy commodities to get commodities, i.e. the thing for the thing. In very rare instances, for example in the case of tattoos or brand merchandise, we buy the brand without buying the thing.
The implications are as profound as the analysis is simple. It explains, first and foremost, why we are seeing such a rapid bifurcation of brands in the top right quadrant. Those that can sustain an illusion of superiority that doesn’t hinge on a demonstrable functional advantage are migrating to the top left quadrant. Those that can’t are fighting to delay their inevitable commoditization.
But as Faisal Ahmed and I argue in Skip Ad in 5, this is only the tip of the phenomenological iceberg. In a media ecology that has become both painfully and welcomely transparent, brand planning must dig beneath the surface of reason and the strata of feelings, or fail.