October 22, 2019

Understanding Marketing Realities

Making sense of modern brand marketing

I have a fundamental belief that the human brain is ill-suited to understanding the hyper-scale realities of digital media. The size, speed and fragmentation astound and confound our basic ideas of scale, shared reality and culture.

As every brand starts to become a hyperobject, unknowable in any single coherent narrative, we struggle to see “how things work”.

We see this manifest in many ways - from incoherent marketing campaigns to misguided data warehousing projects. The micro view provides an abundance of data but a lack of meaning while the macro view provides coherent but un-true narratives.

Increasingly we retreat to data - a retreat from reality to measurable aggregation. Counting likes rather than measuring influence. Counting pageviews rather than understanding intent.

I get it. And I’m guilty of it too. We all are. But to survive we’re going to need new ideas and new ways of thinking about “brands” and “markets”.

Here’s some thoughts on emerging ideas old and new:

Experience Data

Lindsay Slaby frames this trend well here - with the phrase “experience data”. I.e. how do you close the gap between what you think your audience is experiencing vs what they actually experience.

One way to do this is via an ethnographic study of your audiences and their lived experience with your ads. This detailed case study from friends Part & Sum is a wonderful peek into how you might do this:

Each persona was assigned a series of actions to be performed on the Glossier website, its social accounts and search engines. Then, with ad blockers disabled, shoppers documented all Glossier content they saw for the next two weeks: emails, ads, suggested posts and so on.

Of our six shoppers, two saw no Glossier targeted ads or social posts at all. Of the remaining four, only one saw any display ads. These four saw several sponsored posts on Instagram and Facebook.

In particular, this can help highlight the uneasy lived experience of digital ads. From spooky predictive ads to aggressive retargeting and more. More in my posts blood in the feed & occult ads.

Experience Ethnographies

Of course, experience “data” only gets you so far. Where the quantitative stops the qualitative begins. I’ve been a champion of ethnography in business for a while and I really enjoyed this clear-eyed post on attempting to discern between insight and noise for a startup using the tools of ethnography:

The critical eye of ethnography can scrutinize the problematic nature of a startup’s we-built-it-in-the-garage mythology. Removed too far from reality, startups often rely too heavily on initial visions. And when vision leads the way, insights and reality, including (and especially) ethnographic insight, tends to challenge (and sometimes support) that vision.

At the same time, the critical eye of ethnography can serve as a valuable tool for investors to evaluate start-up stories, helping determine whether these new ideas meet customer needs while also assessing whether their organizational cultures are a good fit to accomplish the challenge at-hand. Because it’s when the two are in conversation—customer needs and organizational culture aptitude—that new and unexpected opportunities for entrepreneurs become reality. And as such, ethnography should be considered a valuable tool in the startup world, for evaluating new ideas and generating them, too. Rather than looking to ethnography to validate or verify, its greater value is in guiding and inspiring a startup.

Reconciling The Intangibles

It’s been a busy few weeks in “brand” news - there’s a short article about Adidas circulating about how they are re-balancing towards brand marketing:

The sports brand’s global media director, Simon Peel, explains that four years ago the company didn’t have any econometrics, its attribution modelling was based on last-click and it didn’t do any brand tracking. It also focused on efficiency over effectiveness, leading it to look at specific KPIs and how to reduce their cost rather than what was in the best interests of its brands.

And my friends at Wistia just announced a focus on “brand affinity marketing”. See this tweet thread:

And this guide to affinity marketing

Unpacking this and attempting to reconcile is hard here - both stories portray a slightly simplistic view of how brands operate and function in the modern world. And both rely on the supremacy of bold creative ideas.

Ultimately of course true success hangs in the balance and tension between brand and performance marketing and in fact I think the real story here is less about the true “balance” between the two but rather in creating a coherent whole out of your brand and performance/direct marketing.

Headless Brands

All of the above however is predicated on a top down “controlled” version of brand marketing. Perhaps the future will be less centralized - perhaps the future will be decentralized or headless brands:

the rise of networked media has challenged the coherence of centrally-managed brand identities. New blockchain-based decentralized organizations take this a step further by giving users financial incentive to spread brand narratives of their own. We introduce the concept of headless brands to explain the community-driven brand dynamics of projects which have no centralized managerial body. We describe some elements of a headless brand’s lifecycle, from formation to adoption, and suggest strategies to maintain a brand’s coherence.

While today this is true for blockchain projects perhaps the world of tomorrow creates market based incentive structures for smaller niche brand audiences - allowing single monolithic brands to splinter into a myriad of brand-worlds where a single brand creates many brand identities across many communities.

In Conclusion

There’s no clear way forward. The accelerating world of technology and culture is going to increasingly challenge our existing notions of how brands work and how brand marketing works. There are no answers but it’s clear that the first step is to take another look at the environment that your brand operates in and attempt to understand the market and marketing reality of your audiences. Only then can we start to formulate new, better, different ways forward.

Update #1: My friend Jim Babb (linked above) brought up the idea of phenomenology as a reference point:

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This post was written by Tom Critchlow - blogger and independent consultant. Subscribe to join my occassional newsletter: