Commentary

Consumer: Who's Got the Energy?

  • by January 31, 2008

I recently heard someone refer to the concept of "the energetic brand." On the downside, it made me feel a little out of the loop. I hadn't heard the expression before, and yet, I got the feeling it's been bandied about for quite a while. On the upside, I liked
it immediately.

It crystallized a point of view that we've been stumbling over for the last couple of years. Which is simply that in order for brands to become or remain relevant these days, they have to have enormous energy. They have to create prodigiously and execute prolifically. They need to present a consistently fresh face to the world. They need to be busy.

They need to make sure their innovation pipeline is crammed with new ideas. They have to continually improve upon the things they already market. And they need to be more energetic in their marketing - thinking of new venues to engage potential customers and new ways to make existing customers happier.

Brands need abundant energy these days.

But then perhaps they always did. I started thinking back to the dark, distant days of marketing - you know, four or five years ago - and I remembered a study done by ddb, my former employer, that empirically demonstrated that the key for brands to achieve exponential growth in popularity and love was to increase their sense of momentum.

At the time, brands generally did that by throwing lavishly produced TV commercials against weighty media plans. But that strategy has had it's day now, and in the absence of being able to buy love with media money, brands have to earn it by making themselves more interesting. And you can't be interesting by telling the same joke over and over again. Hence the need for creative energy.

It all sounds pretty intuitive, really. So what's wrong with this picture? Two words. The upfront. The upfront is the duck-billed platypus of the new communications environment. It's survived intact from an earlier age but looks absurd in every way.

I can't think of many things better designed to suck the energy out of the creative process than to make media decisions a year in advance. It just seems so old fashioned. Almost designed to breed passivity.

Maybe when innovation was a little more predictable (or a little slower) the upfront made sense. But how can an entrepreneurial and innovative organization know how best to launch a product while it's still in development.

Maybe, when it cost one million dollars (pinkie moves to corner of mouth) to make a commercial and you wanted to get your money's worth, maybe then the upfront made sense. But it isn't cost prohibitive to be viewed as energetic any more. Technology has made it cheap to produce creative ideas. (If anyone needs any further proof of that, read the Robert Rodriguez book, Rebel Without a Crew: Or How a 23-year-old Filmmaker with $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player.)

Maybe when there were a lot of different media agencies all working to get the best deal for their clients the upfront made sense. But now that a handful of media groups control the majority of the country's media money it doesn't seem relevant. (As my friend Jim Geoghegan at MediaHead eloquently put it, "You can't beat the market when you are the market.")

But the biggest issue with the upfront is that it still assumes the TV is the dominant medium. And it assumes that the primary media planning decision is whether to negotiate for TV early in the year or take your chances later in an open market. And that simply doesn't make sense.

TV is an important medium. It will remain an important medium. But it isn't the dominant medium now. Ideas became the dominant medium as soon as it was clear that a good idea could create an audience of its own. And sound communications planning needs to follow the communications idea not the communications channel.

Imagine how fed up Blendtec - the instigators of the enormously popular "Will it blend?" series on YouTube would have been if they had committed gazillions of dollars during the upfront only to find that a really entertaining idea had created an audience for them for free.

Now Blendtec, that's an energetic brand. Their passion for ideas is palpable. And their enthusiasm to bring those ideas to life is what sustains their energetic brand. And I'll bet they won't be spending much time in network presentations this spring.

Paul Parton is the brand-planning partner at The Brooklyn Brothers, a creative collective. (paul@thebrooklynbrothers.com)

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