For most of my career, Connections Strategy has been a luxury. It was a media offering, focused on finding the sweet spot between the brand and consumer, thrown around in big brand scopes that could afford the expertise.
It was rich, glorified, the cream of the crop. That, or worse yet, a buzzword, a declaration in big client pitches amongst executives. It was the realm of “Specialists”, “Thought Leaders” and Academics. But, in the world’s best brands, it’s not a siloed offering.
And for the rest of us, it can’t be like that anymore. We don’t really have a choice. The marketing world is shifting under our feet and we only have one option: to adapt. First, what exactly is Connections Strategy? Most of the industry has heard of Communications Strategy, so how does it differ?
In order to explain Connections Strategy, we must look back (just a bit) into the history of advertising. This will be short, I promise.
The most successful advertising builds a relationship. For a long time, advertising relationships were one-sided, prioritizing the brand or the consumer, but never both. Ultimately, the evolution of advertising relationships was driven by technology. Let me explain. In the 1970s, mass media reigned. This was the age of Mad Men, hard-drinking, chain-smoking executives and whiskey poured while contemplating your next big ad idea. Brands were at the center of the relationship.
A brand would spout its message as widely as possible using vehicles like radio and TV. Communications Strategy was developed and thrived. Often married to a campaign, this brand-centric framework was developed to meet specific marketing objectives in getting a message out to a consumer.
The measure of success (KPI) in those times was the reach of a consumer. But, what kind of relationship is built purely off reach? Traditionally, soft drink brands have struggled with focusing too much on the brand and not enough on the consumer. Take a look at historic Coke taglines and this becomes much more apparent: “Coke Is It! (1982), “Catch the Wave” (1986), and “Always Coca-Cola” (1993). Their taglines speak to a wide audience but don’t succeed in really resonating with any one consumer.
In the 2000s, the Data Revolution took place. The consumer really took the reins back in the relationship; they became the center. The goal was consumer personalization, driven by “Big Data”. My boss in the early 2000s joked we could now market SUVs specifically to left-handed skiers living in Las Vegas. The targeting world was boundless. Audience relevance soared, but we lost the brand. Brands attempted to be everything for everyone through custom digital messaging distributed to splintering targets... and lost their identity in the process. Communications Strategies faltered, were tucked away in cabinets, suffocated by unfettered access to data.
With all that being said, what I am proposing is being thoughtful about building a relationship. This requires a purposeful balance between brand and consumer. And, in my eyes, this change is imminent, more imminent now given the ever-accelerating privacy concerns that have most recently been on the rise. Privacy practices can be traced back to HIPAA in 1996. Most advertising professionals are intimately familiar with GDPR in 2018, CCPA in 2019, the fallout of the Apple/Facebook wars in Spring 2021, and CDPA in 2021. Lest we forget that we are all amidst preparation for Google’s cookie-less future.
Whom among us has tried to precision target on Facebook recently, to hardly any avail? So what can be done?
At the highest level, true connection lives at the intersection of brand objectives and audience truths. There needs to be overlap, otherwise you completely miss product-market fit. Connections Strategy is a long-term play. It can’t be executed overnight or in one campaign cycle. It’s a relationship-centric approach, informed by consumer research, analytics and keen observation that together paint a picture of how and where brands show up to build a relationship with the consumer.
Relationships are built off authenticity and consistency. And the business statistics support this approach—86% of consumers say that authenticity is a key factor when deciding what brands they like and support (Stackla, 2019), while the consistent presentation of a brand has seen to increase revenue by 33% (Lucidpress, 2019).
It is no coincidence that some of the longest-surviving brands have invested early in long-term branding strategies. It’s ultimately a form of future-proofing. A short-term approach may bring you immediate sales, but you will be caught flat-footed once your demo “ages-out” or you exhaust your existing market. When it comes to execution, the best marketing programs achieve cohesion across all marketing channels, not just the paid ones.
The consumer experience, or connection point, is considered at each encounter with the brand, not just the channels that clients hire agencies for (PR, web dev and media). All execution needs to stem from the same strategy; a strategy that integrates the consumer and is consistent. The best brands take this one step further, showing authenticity through shared values with their consumer audiences. They show up authentically by having a clear definition of their audience, being meticulous in where they show up or who they partner with or taking a stand in an issue that is important to them.
In practice, this is how you execute connection. Who’s doing it right? Apple. Patagonia. Juneshine. Juneshine, a Hard Kombucha brand, has a clear and focused target: young, health-conscious outdoors enthusiasts. The brand purpose centers on a product made for those who don’t want to sacrifice enjoying their night for their early adventure the next morning. They show up consistently on platforms that matter to their audience. Social, content and influencers are truly at the heart of their brand, all intimately interrelated in a beautiful web that forms their online brand identity. A perfect storm that reflects the audience's media habits back at them.
Authenticity is shown in the influencers they have chosen to partner with. They are individuals at top of their fields: adventurers, artists, creators and athletes. But marketing doesn’t stop there, their online presence extends into experiential with everything from tasting rooms, adventure film showing or even free 2-hour delivery. Easier said than done.
But, if we don’t believe in honest connection with our consumers, what are we really doing in this industry? Isn’t this what we all dreamed about as young advertising hopefuls? What I am advocating for is bringing Connection Strategy down from its ivory tower. Disassociating from buzzwords like “real-time” or “big data”. Connections Strategy should not just be written as a line item in a scope, but rather a state of mind across every level of the organization. We should be thinking about Connection in all the work we do -- the creative we pitch, the consumer research, how we negotiate our buy. It should breathe life into the placements and tactics we recommend.
With privacy concerns on the rise, we will eventually have no choice. The legislature has forced our hand. So, let’s get back to our roots - to advertising that is more audience-friendly, more humane, driving a greater impact. Let’s stop forgoing building a relationship with the consumer for short-term results, sales or otherwise. Let’s let the pendulum swing back towards the brand, (stopping somewhere short of Mad Men-era advertising).
Brands can’t be everything for everyone, but they shouldn’t want to. Personalization only suffocated the consumer anyway. Some brands knew this innately. The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. The only question left is how fast we will follow their lead.