Last week, Melissa Francis at FOX Business did a story on BuzzFeed’s review of fast food marketing. The site created a sliding scale format that compared the pictures of fast food presented in advertising with the actual items you’d be handed across the counter. Even though there’s a big disconnect between what you see and what you get, that didn’t stop advertisers from presenting idealized versions of their products.
Of course this is nothing new. For years advertising agencies have created compelling personas for their clients and their products to position them to be as compelling as possible to their customers. But even in the best of times this practice was only thought to be about 50% effective. As legendary retailer John Wanamaker said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”
Despite all the advances the industry has made in the century since Wanamaker uttered those famous words, the situation has only gotten worse. Today many retailers and other marketers are finding that simply saying what their customers want to hear just doesn’t work anymore.
While the reason is uncomplicated, the causes are very complex. But simply put, we don’t decide who we are, the market does. In the old days (read pre-Internet) it was relatively easy to craft a brand personality that matched what the market wanted without having to worry that you’d be found out if your persona wasn’t consistent with your true identity. After all, consumers — even those who had been deceived and disappointed by products that didn’t deliver what they promised — had no effective way of reaching out and letting the world know how they were treated. But today the Internet and its ever-present suite of social media sites allow almost anyone to broadcast their occurrences, observations, and opinions to millions and millions of consumers regardless of geography or budgets.
If we agree that our brands need to be congruent with what the market says about us then we have to craft tribal signatures that are true to our authentic selves AND create authentic selves that are consistent with who we are and what we believe. That way the messages we broadcast and the experiences our customers enjoy are consistent with one another. This reinforcement of the authentic brand personality by the customer experience is where true brand value is built.
In those old days, many companies used to hire advertising agencies to fashion their brand positioning simply because they didn’t have the guts to be true to their own authentic selves. But as we’ve seen, that was before consumers carried web-enabled smartphones and had the ability to instantly share their experiences with the world. Today aggressive marketing companies cannot game the system simply because ubiquitous and instantaneous online accountability won’t stand for it.
Today’s marketers must make a bold declaration consistent with what they believe and who they really are and get serious about changing their behavior, policies, procedures, and teams to reinforce this powerful declaration. Otherwise they will continue to hide behind advertising because they want to shift responsibility and not be accountable.
In simple terms, today leadership equals marketing.
All of this brings up a question that we’ve all struggled with, both personally and professionally: “Who am I?” And while the Greeks asked this question as far back as the 10th century – even inscribing it on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (γνῶθι σεαυτόν) – most modern companies and business people do not know their answer.
Unfortunately, not knowing what a person or company truly stands for does not stop marketers from generating an inaccurate racket. But activity does not necessarily result in productivity. Or as the warrior philosopher Sun-Tzu put it, “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”