Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Duty Matters II

In the second part of his article on Brand Duty, Julian Saunders unveils his sustainable manifesto for difficult times.
Published 28 Oct, 2023 12:59pm

Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer at P&G, is well placed to detect an important shift in consumer sentiment. Here is what he said at the Cannes Festival this year: “We need to convey performance or benefits. [We are] getting back to the fundamentals. I think in today’s world, moving into areas of advocacy that are outside of your brand’s wheelhouse, that’s where things can get undone.”

There are plenty of cautionary examples. Try googling “anti-woke backlash” for a sample. It produces opinion pieces like: “Why Americans are sick of woke marketing.” Brands burnishing their green credentials, for example, are all too easily undone by images of the CEO boarding a private jet. They get caught in a social media pile on, especially in the US, where cultural wars are running hot right now. The risks of being caught out as a hypocritical virtue signaller now outweigh the benefits of promoting your social purpose.

Woke is still potent provided it’s “authentic”
Aurora readers know that (what I call) ‘Higher Purpose Branding’ has become a common challenger brand strategy in recent decades. Successful brands born with an ethical heart – Ben & Jerry’s, Nike, Patagonia and The Body Shop started the trend. They will continue to be ‘woke’ because it is in the brands’ DNA. They can do no other.

A “back to basics” time has come
Yet Marc Pritchard’s call for “back to basics” was (probably) inevitable. Many brands have set themselves up as moral leaders with their talk of ‘purpose’, ‘values’ and high-minded campaigns on a whole bunch of issues that ail humanity. Customers are hyped up as ‘followers’, suffused with so much ‘brand love’ that they ‘spread the word’ and create ‘a movement.’ Working for some companies can even feel like joining a cult (Google was when I was there). It was overheated talk that was due to be punctured by some down to earth common sense. There is another factor. The pandemic, followed by a cost of living crisis, has made survival the main concern among many people, and brands, as Pritchard says, need to pay more attention to performance and value.

Performance and value are fundamental
It was ever thus because recessions happen on a regular basis. As Paul Feldwick said in his seminal essay, What is a brand?, brands begin as a promise of certainty in an uncertain world. Performance and value are not therefore merely rational promises, but powerfully emotional ones too. The desire for security is visceral. It is how brands began in the 19th century and it is the fundamental duty of a brand today. The early 21st century provides a different context in which to define a brand’s duty today. There are two big new factors.

Firstly, service standards are defined by those apps you prod regularly on your smartphone. These titans of User Experience Design (Apple/Amazon/Google) constantly drive towards ease and fluency. Secondly, making it easy – so people don’t have to think hard – is not a bland mission. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains why: Easy is a sign that things are going well: no threats, no major news, no need to redirect attention or mobilise effort. Strained indicates that a problem exists.

If you want to build brand trust you should examine all the ways your brand interacts and then make every point of contact easier. And innovate constantly to increase ease and reduce stress in the lives of your customers. (Oh, and don’t forget to provide human backup for those who are not digital natives.)

The younger generation expects more
Environmental degradation and the climate crisis are now centre stage. What younger people expect of companies now is framed by it. Ensuring that all aspects of sourcing, making, distributing, communicating and selling are sustainable is expected. For example, if your packaging is not biodegradable, then the spotlight will soon fall on you. You should keep in mind the unforgiving scrutiny of Greta Thunberg because she symbolises the duty you have to the next generation of customers.

Differentiation is in the detail
The bedrock of successful branding is: pay attention to the detail. All of the details that matter to your consumers all of the time: pricing, product quality, performance. Constantly evolve your UXD, service and audit all your processes to meet environmental standards. You may say this sounds a bit dull and surely these are basic duties. Generics. How will all this make my brand different and distinctive? These duties will make your brand different because they are difficult, and only well-managed brands can achieve them all. In Simply Better, Professor Patrick Barwise explains how this is in fact the winning strategy of the world’s most successful companies: “Managers often dismiss (performance) as mere table stakes or hygiene factors or the basics. Most customers expect the basics. Alas, it seems that they are disappointed remarkably often. The rewards that would arise from businesses simply meeting and exceeding straightforward, reasonable expectations are substantial.”

The human factor
Simply Better is about what it means to be customer-centric and what happens if you really do spend time with your customers. (For starters you will stop using brain-deadening jargon like “customer-centric.”)

What brands really matter?
People don’t think that much about brands – but they do worry about family, friends and local communities. Practical help is what people want (not grand mission statements about brand purpose), and the brands that matter in their lives deliver on this. This explains why the big grocery brands are so strong. My local supermarket now makes it easy for me to donate to the nearest food bank and still offers cheap food, and gives employment to local people. During the pandemic their role as a vital support system came sharply into focus – their supply chains held up and there was no rioting in the streets because the food did not run out. Shortages were sporadic and did not last long.

Because It’s Worth It
You notice too that people are funny, sceptical and prepared to prick pomposity. There is another underestimated way to be different: use fresh or plain language or even have a sense of humour. It’s not that common. Why so? Most ads are now measured by response rates. The creative task is to optimise response – a process that tends to strip out human quirks. If you feel tempted, replace copywriters with an AI bot; the result is unlikely to produce a distinctive brand voice and personality. (We shall see, as it is early days in the AI revolution).

At the Cannes Festival this year, McDonald’s scored a hit with a film called Raise Your Arches. It won’t have you rolling in the aisles. It tells a gentle human story of office folk slipping out for a lunchtime McDonald’s. And in the context of 2023 that made it very different.

Julian Saunders has led Account Planning departments in agencies big and small, been CEO of a WPP creative agency, worked in a Google innovation team and on behaviour change campaigns for the UK government.