Monday, November 28, 2011

'Sciency' Communications & Partnerships...

How a lot of ads are made...

The title of this post might confuse anyone who's not read Douglas Holt's latest book, 'Cultural Strategy'. If you haven't (and you're reading this whilst in possession of a job on communications), you owe it to yourself to have a look. It's really very good.

Anyway, in the book, Holt uses the term 'Sciency' to refer to the vast majority of measures that marketers use to measure communications. Pretty much any brand tracking or ad evaluation, in Holt's eyes, falls under this lens.

It's something that I'm sure a large number of planners and researchers would violently agree with (and especially Rupert Howell - read a fragment of his 2000 MRS speech). Using rubbish measures to assess the efficacy of work has led to a short termist (or at best, medium-term) culture, one where the number of long lasting brand strategies can be counted on the finger of one hand.

Don't get me wrong, I don't simply think it's as saying 'research is the devil' or 'research needs to be more representative of real life - then it'll work'. Life is far too chaotic for that. Sometimes concept testing does give you the right answer, or a series of clues to test further.

My problem comes when business judgements are made solely as a result of soft metrics. When bonuses are attached to scores on a brand tracker, everybody loses. Marketing becomes needlessly short termist.

It becomes more troubling when the markets aren't immune from this kind of behaviour. Thomas Cook, if reports are to be believed, lost 75% of its market value on the basis of a report about cash flow. One thing led to another, confidence was low amongst business forecasters, and the business suffered. This is the same principle as an ad being judged harshly in research, researcher confirming it, clients passing it on and the organisation rejecting it. A good idea (or business) could take years to re-emerge.

Yet, look what's said by Thomas Cook, amongst those that control the business. Patently, the business wasn't failing, but needed more money in the short term for working capital. However, because this corporate story was read as a potential threat to consumers (it wasn't), the market panned it. If the ad in my example could be proven to benefit the business (focusing on what's happened to the business historically, rather than the mostly short-termist, false idol of brand), then it should be the measure given most weight.

If 'information' or 'Sciency' findings lead to a short term reaction without considering the broader picture (or indeed, what's actually important - that the business's sales come from markets across Europe, or that the ad will be seen in context beyond a darkened focus group room, and - hopefully, as part of a wider strategy), then 'Sciency' conclusions are indeed to blame for a lot of bad comms. They lead to short-termist thinking, and short termist thinking risks undermining the business, in much the same way as Thomas Cook and The City appear to have operated.

And, in truth, it's never been easier (or indeed, more seductive) for the metrics obsessed marketer to fall into this trap. What IS my Klout score? Likes on Facebook? Number of RTs for my tweet?

Or, indeed, the notion of 'awareness or brand loyalty as a 'key metric'. It's deceptively simple to gain awareness; parading your agency down the street starkers with your brand name emblazoned across their chest would do the trick. And the notion of loyalty, as Ehrenberg has demonstrated, is largely false.

No, what needs to happen is a return to business basics. Over a significant period of time, what has happened to sales? Why? How can we isolate this activity? What happened in the test market versus the control market? What does the overall competitive landscape look like in terms of sales? Are we representative? Yes? No? Why, or why not? Who buys what brand/s, and do they make up the majority of the share?

If we can answer some of those with authority, we might just be getting somewhere. If we can't, no amount of social media monitoring will make a ha'penny jizz to your business performance. It might put a sticking plaster over some of the 'Sciency' metrics, but not a lot more.

Thinking about this further, there is a very real need for partnerships as a means of growing business and brand appeal. Marketers; your brand is not the white, shiny snowflake you'd like it to be. To punters, it's just another toothpaste they sometimes buy.

But, if your communications wants to move the needle from A to B, to tap into a behaviour that is relevant and interesting for your brand (that you've tested to see - and not just ad testing; ethnographic findings/google search analysis/SKU purchasing over a significant period of time) and business - why not consider some form of partnership?

It would seem to me that nothing is created solely on its own, if indeed it ever was. People buy into brands for a myriad of reasons, but there's usually a contextual reason why. It may be you buy a Philips electric shaver because your father did, and you're assured of the brand's quality.

If I wanted to move the needle for you to consider my Braun shaver, I'd have to tap into something potent, with obvious cultural resonance, that meant something to you. No amount of boards in a darkened room (or indeed, fully finished ads on the telly) would do that.

But my friends might. And, if I knew that my friends were buying or doing something which related to shaving in some faint way (such as using a Braun as a result of a cultural tie up with Movember or something similar), then I might switch.

Heck, if I was the Braun Marketing Director, I might just try this out. And I might see if it moved the needle. Not in a month. Not in 3 months. But over years. Medium term measures could be moved away from if I had access to a robust database of the kind of people I wanted to target from another, receptive and culturally relevant brand I'd tied up with - this would go some way to avoiding a 'the ad's shit' response from my colleagues. I'd have proper data at my disposal, and some way of tapping into the hard responses - checking brand buying behaviour from those who liked Braun AND were doing Movember.

Then, and only then, would I consider my Marketing a success. Not when celebrity X retweeted my campaign, or the number of hits on Youtube. I've watched all sorts of things on Youtube; if it led to purchase in any way, I'd be in the possession of about 5 cats that could play the keyboard.

I guess what I'm really driving at is getting businesses to base their decisions on what's happening to sales of a product/service over time, or by consulting a robust database (either their own or a brand's that they've partnered with) and then getting into more spur of the moment research.

That'd stop the small-minded, short-termist pissing money away, and, I'm sorry to say, it's only likely to happen with a long-term relationship with an agency that was allowed access to historical data from which to make decisions, and these are all too rare. A business that understood historical business data, and was quick enough on its feet to help navigate where the brand could play culturally...that's the dream, I think, whether you're a client or an agency. Wouldn't that be nice? We might actually be *gulp* business partners.
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