Australia’s communications problem: ‘Ownable’ trumps relevance and insight stands no chance

marius donnestadIn this guest post, planner Marius Donnestad argues that the entire development and briefing process for creative strategy is broken.   

One quote recently shared on LinkedIn says: “The most dangerous phrase in the language is we’ve always done it this way”. While painfully aware that the majority of its output has little to no effect, the creative industry has so far failed to challenge the fundamental tenets on which its strategic and creative processes are built.

Well, I’m going to give it a go.

In Australia branded communication is still predominantly about disruption and persuasion.

But since this is too crude for an industry priding itself on creativity to associate itself with, we indulge in a long process designed to disguise anything that reeks of the hard-sell.

Brutal simplicity is the name of the game; one-word platforms is nirvana. Using proprietary brand pyramids, funnels and onions we engage in a series of semantic exercises that seek to reduce the brand to its most basic linguistic state. Stripped bare of inconvenient but crucial complexity such as history and cultural context, the brand becomes an abstract entity whose frame of reference is limited to marketing text-books.

And because brands must own something, ownable trumps relevance, bypassing any real insight into the human motivations that underpin purchase decisions.

We search for the optimal blend of emotional and rational benefits from the sale rack of concepts left unclaimed by the competition, before spending weeks word-smithing messaging, agonising over use of adjectives.

At the same time, in an office on the other side of town, and based on the same insights derived from the same focus group confabulations, your competitor is going through the exact same process.

In an increasingly homogenised marketplace, brand and campaign strategies have become excruciatingly technical, and any actual differentiation and relevance as perceived by people out in the real world virtually non-existent. With processes designed by marketers for marketers these strategies are relevant only to those for whom new has the same meaning as revolutionary; who believe the key driver for crisps is the depth of its ridges, and who refuse to accept that people can’t actually love a bank.

So invariably, the strategy leg of the relay adds no real value. Fortunately, once the client signs off on it, that’s now the creatives’ problem.

To creatives, a strategy essentially consists of words to be dramatised. First say it straight, then say it great. We all know that people hate ads, so we disguise the stuff they dislike (sales messages) with stuff they presumably do like (humour, ‘inspirational’ stories, pop-cultural references, ‘celebrating’ stuff they care about and telling them how amazing they are).

So the role of creativity in advertising, then, is like a Trojan Horse – smuggle boring messages into people’s minds while pretending to be their friend. Taking it for granted that the message gets magically unwrapped by their subconscious before taking the desired action.

Only it doesn’t work that way, Rather than making messages stick, it has the opposite effect.

A campaign typically takes the strategy – a word or phrase – and milks it for all it’s worth, reinterpreting it, dramatising it across a myriad of media channels using a combination of puns and metaphors. This allows the creatives to keep the boring stuff at arm’s length, while at the same time being on-strategy and on-brief. What is in fact being communicated, however, becomes further and further removed from what was originally intended.

For two reasons:

• A metaphor is a device to make complex concepts simple. Not the other way around.

A strategy has already been reduced to extreme simplicity, often to the point of abstraction – Yes, Can, Think – any creative wrapping becomes another layer of complexity that people have no inclination to decipher.

• When translated to puns and subjected to word-association and brainstormings, each execution becomes a new link in a game of Chinese whispers, leaving only a theoretical and tenuous link between executions and back to the original strategy.

Not to mention the actual product.

Perfectly simple messages are being sacrificed on the alter of so-called creativity. But it doesn’t really matter, because the underlying assumption all along was that people notice, remember, trust and care about advertising. They very rarely do.

So that’s the messages, but what about the brand itself?

The brand is in the detail. Unfortunately, all the subtleties that conveys the actual brand, and which are the parts most likely to stick, such as look and feel, personality, symbolism and cultural references, have been reduced to afterthoughts. These elements are either employed to serve whatever metaphor or pun has been dreamt up for the occasion, or left to the whims of whichever creative is on duty.

With only a generic brand strategy for support, the true expression of the brand becomes a random, post-rationalised, entity. Lacking in substance and relevant cultural symbolism, it’s incapable of creating any meaningful connection with people.

As we see, once the journey has commenced, it’s a slippery slope from brand strategy to underwhelming and underperforming communication. Due to its inherent and very appealing logic, it’s almost impossible to pinpoint exactly what went wrong along the way.

Which is why it’s time to question some of the things we take for granted and challenge the way we’ve always done things.

Here are a few suggestions on where to start:

• Every stage of the process, from research and defining the problem to insight generation, brief writing and creative development must be reviewed.

• Advertising must evolve from a disruption-persuasion model to one of managing perceptions (watch Inception again).

• Brands must be treated as cultural symbols – used by people to express identity, belonging and status – not as scientific formulas.

• Brands must seek to connect with people based on a purpose and shared values, not irrelevant functional, or arbitrary emotional, benefits.

• Creative and strategy must be developed in tandem. The current torch-relay is a counterproductive byproduct of the evolution of the agency model.

• The brand and organisation must become one – everything from product development to employee uniforms must be part of a coherent whole.

• Agencies and clients must dig deeper and find some courage. Start asking questions, do things differently, take risks, fail, learn, and stop trying to please everyone.

And let’s learn from the world’s most iconic brands – I’m not even going to mention their names – not by copying their tactics, but by understanding the underlying principles that made them iconic in the first place.

  • Marius Donnestad is a Sydney-based  freelance strategy planner. He previously worked at Loud and IdeaWorks as well as frreelance assignments at Clemenger BBDO, Razor Group and BWM. He blogs at Marius on Strategy and Communication

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