It's been eye-opening to have conversations with thought leaders in advertising and marketing regarding the future of the industry. The conversations always start on how one could advertise effectively in social media, but more often than not it turns into a discussion of the bigger question: What's the purpose of advertising/marketing?
It's as if the new social media reality is forcing marketers and agencies to reevaluate the reasons for advertising in the first place. As a very good friend (who's a very smart media guy) asked me, "Where is the leverage in this industry?" (referring to media and advertising). We aren't talking about a small shift, but hundreds of billions of dollars spent on advertising and marketing. Marketers are being forced to ask themselves what the role of advertising is in the marketing mix.
If you make a product that sucks, you can't get by on advertising alone. Even if it's possible to build initial demand, word of mouth spreads so fast today, advertising can no longer be leaned on as the key to product success -- or can it? I guess it all depends on what the purpose of advertising really is, what return advertisers truly expect -- and, perhaps most important, when advertisers expect to receive that return.
The question is, is advertising's role to sell product -- or to sell product at a certain price? If Coke wanted to sell more soda, it could drop the price, or pull other levers in the marketing mix, but Coke, and thousands of other brands, are not simply looking to sell more product, they are looking to sell more product at a particular price.
The truth is, an incredible amount of parity among products exists in today's world in almost any product category. But brands mean more to people than a set of product functionality. Brand attributes occupy a place in people's minds -- while products can be functional or not, brands can be expressive, compassionate, funny, edgy, entertaining or trendy. The role of advertising has been to help a brand define and maintain its position in culture, most recently through message delivery in mass media. But today, when the brand can no longer simply define and distribute a message, what is the role of advertising?
I would argue that for marketers, finding a way to interact with consumer and strengthen brand perception is as important as ever. In fact, as production of perfectly functional, and higher and higher quality substitutes continues, it is a brand's perception by consumers that protects its economic value.
But it's not enough in today's media landscape to tell people what your brand values are merely by broadcasting them. Marketers must find a way to allow people to experience and share a brand's values. Brands found a way, through advertising, to be a part of people's cultural experience using broadcast media. The task is the same for social media, and it is an important one.
It is a brand's job to allow people to express themselves and to help people make purchase decisions in a world with endless selections. It is advertising's job to help shape a brand's story.
The form advertising takes to maintain relevance in media's latest evolution, has yet to be totally unlocked. And it may be that advertising makes up a smaller share of the media mix or (shockingly) a larger share, given that advertising's new role will be to create conversations, which can drive product insights, which can lead to maintaining a leadership position in product innovation.
It may be that the lines separating advertising, research and other marketing functions will simply blur, and elements of each be present in all brand communications. "Why" is always a good question to ask before starting any marketing or advertising initiative -- but how honest are we with our answers?
Why advertise at all? Drop me a line on twitter @ www.twitter.com/joemarchese and leave a comment on this post to keep the dialogue going.