"Brand Voice" (Or, "Have Something to Say or Shut Up Already")
When we were pitching a big brand recently I got very attached to the idea of aligning the brand with the maker movement. The brand and the movement shared so many inherently American values -- innovation, optimism, passion, and hard work -- that it seemed like there must be some there, there.
We didn’t end up presenting the concept, but I must have banged on about it too much, because now my teammates send me links to things like this from Lincoln and this from Levi’s whenever they come across them. Not precisely what we had in mind, but certainly the same basic premise.
Why so similar? The obvious (and maybe true) answer is that I’m not that original. But
I also think the similarity of these ideas to what I had in mind says something more about the transitional phase marketing is in at the moment.
Brands and agencies are slowly moving away from an era of borrowed interest toward one where they create interest of their own, but at the moment are caught somewhere in the murky middle. The space we’re caught in is limiting creativity and bravery: the executions may vary (and may even be great individually) but so many feel familiar because they tend to be the same kind of idea.
Brands are producing more content, in more formats, than ever before – yet missing the fundamental thing that makes content worth someone’s time: a point of view.
Brands are saying more, but haven’t yet found their voice.
Instead, many of the programs brands create fall into one of two broad categories: they’re either driven by an external reference point or by a perceived permission to weigh in on a topic.
Real-time marketing, social content calendars and native advertising are all approaches rooted in external reference points.
Real-time marketing exists in reference to pop culture happenings. Social content calendars are designed around holidays, many of which stretch the very definition of the word, like the recent National Pirate Day. Native advertising exists in reference to the content and style of specific publishing environments.
In each of these cases the brand would have nothing to say absent the external reference point (and lots of times, nothing worth saying even in reference to it).
Programs based on perceived permission include Corporate Social Responsibility efforts, and also ideas like the maker movement program I had in mind. Some of the most ambitious content programs in recent years are CSR efforts, but donating a percentage of sales to local schools is a lot different than having a point of view on education, for example.
The maker program and others of its ilk look for cultural trends that overlap in enough ways with a brand’s values that it feels acceptable to participate, and in these programs a real point of view is replaced with a generalized celebration of the topic, or perhaps some kind of sweepstakes or prize.
The problem with the reference and permission approaches is that they are safe. They let brands publish in a way that limits downside risk. But great content – whether a book, article, film, piece of art, whatever – can’t emerge from such a defensive posture. We don’t choose to spend time with content because it’s safe, we do so to be moved or challenged.
Having and sharing a point of view is of course a risky proposition for brands, who don’t want to alienate any potential customer. But not having a point of view is risky too, if you accept the premise that brands will increasingly need to create impressions of their own, as opposed to piggy-backing on impressions created by other forms of entertainment.
Personally I do accept that premise. Cord-cutting, never-cording, Smart TVs that turn television into an app experience, binge viewing on Netflix and Amazon, not to mention original programming from these and other new players – all of these trends point to a television landscape where there are fewer ads for people to see.
Meanwhile people are already spending more time with digital channels than television, and the two ad formats that dominate digital – interruption and adjacency – have failed to replace the power of television advertising. In mobile environments, which are quickly replacing desktop digital, adjacency hardly exists and interruption just won’t be tolerated. Our thumbs will find the ‘X’ to close the ad unit no matter how tiny it is.
With fewer TV spots to buy, and existing digital formats not living up to expectations, the need for brands to create their own impressions is pressing.
But these new impressions will only come from content that people actively choose to spend time with. It’s hard to imagine people choosing to spend time with brand content in any meaningful way if the playing field stays grounded in reflection and permission.
To build choice-based impressions at scale, brands will need to find the courage to have a point of view.