Issue 14 | March 2010
(What the planner sees before him…)
It was once observed that people tend to view the world through the lens of their profession - and I make no excuse for doing exactly that here. I have worked across the industry - ATL, BTL and all points in-between: brand planning, account planning, connections planning, digital planning and communications planning – all titles designed to suit particular agency disciplines. Broadly speaking they all do the same thing: helping to craft and deliver a client’s brand message to the most suitable audience to affect behavioural and attitudinal change through the most interesting and fertile ideas. Oh – and as cheaply as possible.
But we are now having to rethink the value planning can create because cultural and societal norms are being shaped by technology. Measurable patterns of behaviour are flowing through observable social networks, which were previously hidden. Brands act like halos of associations that illuminate a company, product or service and most of these associations are increasingly being shaped by communities of human beings – not by agencies. As a result agencies are not entirely clear where they start and finish when it comes to owning the ‘brand’ or the ‘customer’ or whether they are even the same thing. Most will publicly play fair with the other agencies they are forced to work with on behalf of their client, but behind closed doors it’s still a bunfight with much poor quality work as a result.
Connections Planning for example is a planning silo originated in media agencies and has been responsible for some of the most awful and intrusive urban spam imaginable – ‘turds on the landscape’ as I call them. Does anyone really think we need brands to be displayed on every imaginable surface while we go about our day? Thought not.
The most striking thing for me is the uncomfortable discovery that communications doesn’t really work in the way we thought it did. By that I mean behaviour driving beliefs and not the other way round. We tend to buy things because people ‘like us’ are buying them so we will make almost instant judgements based on that and then spend time post rationalising it to ourselves afterwards if we need to, using peer reviews. Advertising acts as a reference point – but rarely the thing that changes our behaviour. This is not true of all categories – fashion being a prime example but it has been the case in most fmcg categories for decades: women purchase certain types of soap powder not just on price – but because their mothers tended to buy that brand before them and/or so too their friends. I suggest a quick read of Mark Earls brilliant book ‘Herd’ for a peek under the hood on this one.
Now I do accept the substantial evidence that shows sending people single-minded messages at key ‘moments of truth’ (dontcha just love that term?) does affect behavioural change, but as we all know, it is usually only incremental and comes with a high wastage cost. Most of this thinking was the result of overzealous management consultants selling in the latest CRM tools – 80% of which failed to deliver anything except broken relationships with customers once human beings were removed to make way for automation to reduce ‘cost to serve’.
New products are slightly different – they absolutely rely on the oxygen of advertising and PR - but even they are moving towards a new model that relies on giving the product away free to a group of people who then tell their friends about it on MySpace, Twitter & Facebook. Why? Well, people like to share their feelings when they have been the recipient of a random act of kindness and it’s hard not to say nice things about a company or brand if the freebie you happen to be given is a shiny new VW! This is not terribly good news if you are continuing to ply your trade with the belief that you can change people’s behaviour purely through brilliantly crafted communications.
Empowered consumers and all that
So much of what we now accept about ‘the customer is king’ and how technology empowers people is ancient. Technology has been changing the world since the Stone Age became the Bronze Age and WOM has been the key influencer on behavioural change since we learned to walk erect. Two recent examples I quite like are the use of cassettes featuring the Ayatollah’s speeches fueling the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s (Twitter bizarrely now playing a role in the 2009 elections) and the introduction of the ATL equivalent of the BTL waste-bin: the infrared TV remote control in 1986. The reality is we have always been in control - but we have chosen not to exercise our power until now.
Convergence Planning: making sense of a messy business
As opposed to ‘target markets’ we can throw messages at, in the hope some of them stick, we now we have to face the reality of dealing with multi-channel narratives based on non-linear and rather messy human interactions. Human beings just won’t fit our deterministic pen portraits on the creative brief – assuming we even did one. Damn their eyes!
Meaningful connections can only occur when it’s two-way and mutually respectful – just like real life. So the issue we need to address is not just the message but the ‘involvement’ we can expect as a result. ROI = Return On Involvement. Planners need to up-skill and quickly to ensure their outputs aren’t actually harming the very brands they are there to assist by planning in a silo – starting here and ending there is no longer relevant.
Planners now need to be in possession of a fully functioning left and right brain: the intellect of the brand architect, the financial acumen of the management consultant, the geekiness of the hacker and the curiosity of the social psychologist. Understanding the semiotics of a category married to the extrinsic and intrinsic motivations and trait displays that constitute patterns of human behavior is as important as understanding RSS feeds, tags, uploads, dwell times, shares, quality of interactions, velocity, comments, spread ability and contextual search patterns.
Interestingly, brand attitudes and tone of voice are probably the most important factors to creating valuable human engagement because it creates ‘propensity to purchase’ rather than just sales and should be measured as for success as such. As Paul Watzlawick observed in his seminal work ‘The Pragmatics of Human Communication’, “everything communicates always” - from the raw information (the ‘digital’ component) to the way we say it (the ‘analogue’ component), and as an industry we have an image problem. As Hugh MacLeod (Gaping Void) puts it in one of his more famous cartoons “if you talked to people the way advertising talked to people, they’d punch you in the face”. Indeed.
And so we need a new way to approach communications strategy – not just what is dictated by our silo’d disciplines. We need something altogether more holistic – the best of what went before, merged with the best of what we need now. In summary: Convergence Planning.
Mark Hancock, former planning guru of Proximity Worldwide and Agency.com has recently devoted his strategic talents to turning an entire Welsh valley into a brand. The farmer who lives up the road, his eggs, milk and butter will be Valley branded. The local produce and the local goods, the craftworks and the artworks, will be Valley branded.
Most people talk about social influence marketing as if it's an online phenomenon taking place in spaces like Facebook and Linked-In but Mark is showing it's a phenomenon taking place in market squares and village pubs.
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