On The Record: The Great Disconnect
It's in the nature of the media and communications industries that those employed in them spend inordinate amounts of time deeply immersed in its minutiae. The effort and intellectual capital that goes into such things on a daily basis is almost suggestive of obsession. While at its best - and such effort undoubtedly pays off to varying degrees - it is, in all cases, at odds with the amount of time and attention consumers give those efforts and the brands they intend to promote.
It is, after all, a sad fact that for the vast majority of the time, no brand rises above the level of insignificance for the average consumer. The good news? This fundamentally justifies the work of all those people toiling away in the communications industries. If consumers somehow permanently had their brand-receiving radar on, all those carefully crafted and expensively executed campaigns wouldn't be needed. We'd probably live in a world of sales promotion and that's about it.
As it is, we need clever and engaging advertising, pr initiatives, sponsorship programs and direct-marketing campaigns. Fundamentally, brands need to demonstrate not only their innate qualities and properties - they need to demonstrate relevance.
And therein lies the challenge. How and where do we best achieve breakthrough and demonstrate relevance in such a cluttered environment? And by clutter, I'm not just referring to media clutter in the form of advertising messages. I'm referring to the "clutter" of people's lives that has nothing to do with media - the stuff of day-to-day living that people actually care about. The industry's use of the term "clutter" is fine as far as it goes, but it is not only self-referential, but also limited. The word only refers to the number of advertising messages occurring within a given time frame, rather than allowing for the full range of potential distractions that occur in different environments at different times. Admittedly, this is a more difficult challenge, but it's essential if you really want to understand your full competitive set in the battle for attention.
With the amount of concurrent media exposure that we know takes place, not to mention all those life activities like work, socializing, eating, child care, etc., that compete for our attention, it's hardly surprising that a brand becomes white noise for so much of our daily lives. After all, how many brands were you thinking about the last time you helped your kid with a homework problem?
Even when watching TV, we are there to watch programs, not ads, so the challenge of cutting through and registering a message is much the same - but at least there is a better chance when someone is staring at the screen. This is not to say that advertising doesn't work, but consumers don't attend to advertising because the product is relevant. They attend because what they see appeals to them in a way that sufficiently holds their attention.
So the starting point for building a campaign should really be the brand or product's insignificance and triviality for the vast majority of the time, not its importance to the consumer or its supposed relevance (which is generally defined solely on the basis of whether someone fits into a demographically derived construct). Start with the belief that consumers really don't care about whatever it is you're promoting and you won't be far off. This is not to say that brand loyalty doesn't exist or that consumers won't ever speak passionately about some brands. But it will be occasional, at best.
I've spent time consulting to brand owners and researching media behavior over the years, and it has pretty much always seemed to me that a disconnect exists between marketers and consumers on this point. Marketers frequently differ from their consumers in many ways, but one of the most common is rooted in the extent to which communications professionals carry the seriousness and importance they rightly attach to structuring their media and marketing activities into unspoken assumptions about the significance of the brand to consumers.
Such a disconnect is natural, but unhelpful and likely to depress the nature and extent of the creativity and originality of execution that we might otherwise see. Maybe we should embrace our own insignificance a little more readily in pursuit of more effective campaigns.