Advertising’s new medium: Human experience

Advertising's new medium: Human experience

Last summer the London-based beverage giant Diageo devised labels for its Brazilian-market whiskey that turned the bottles into a conduit for custom video. Timed to hit shelves for Father’s Day, in August, the labels enabled a gift giver to scan a code and upload a video message for Dad to the cloud. Dad could scan the code with his own phone to receive the recorded good wishes. The videos promoted the brand, tightened social bonds and allowed the company to reconnect with both giver and recipient for future promotions – events, tastings, offers and the like.

Diageo transformed the most mundane form of advertising – a label with a logo – into an open-ended personal messaging system that could be woven into consumers’ lives. This is a far cry from advertising as we’ve known it – ubiquitous but often poorly targeted, intrusive, ignored at best and actively rejected at worst.

Today consumers are drowning in irrelevant messages. In this media-saturated world, advertising strategies built on persuading through interruption, repetition and brute ubiquity are increasingly ineffective. To have an impact, then, marketers must fundamentally rethink their advertising strategy and execution and expand their definition of what, exactly, advertising is.

Standard ad messaging and conventional creative executions and placement are rapidly becoming outmoded. To win consumers’ attention and trust, marketers must think less about what advertising says to its targets and more about what it does for them. Rather than conceive ad campaigns with a beginning, a middle, and an end that hammer home a point, they must think about advertising – as well as the offerings it promotes – as a sustained and rewarding presence in consumers’ lives.

In my work, I advise marketers to approach this as a landscape composed of four domains: the public sphere, the social sphere, the tribal sphere and the psychological sphere.

The public sphere

Advertising in the public sphere typically engages consumers during moments of downtime when they’re moving between one point or activity and the next and have attention free for new inputs.

Effective public-sphere ads follow one or more of four principles:

They are relevant in context. That is, the message aligns with the consumer’s experience at the moment she encounters the ad. The online shoe retailer Zappos understood this when it placed ads in the bins used to move possessions, including shoes, through US airport security. This placement connects idle time in transit with unintrusive but relevant messaging.

They help people reach personal objectives. Ikea, the global Swedish discount retailer, has integrated its advertising with a range of transportation solutions for customers at its Brooklyn, New York, store. The company provides a water taxi and a shuttle bus, branded and painted in its iconic blue and gold, to get to Manhattan and back.

They are branded interventions. They enter the lives of consumers in targeted and useful ways when and where they’re desired or needed.

They provide engaging, refreshing or compelling experiences. Pop-up stores and pop-up trucks, which are surprising, experientially rich and brand-focused, provide one example.

The social sphere

Advertising in the social sphere helps people forge new connections or enrich existing ones. It can turn social interactions themselves into carriers of ad messaging. Like public-sphere advertising, it must appear in the right place at the right time with the right message. To that end, it must be relevant in context, align with social goals, address a social need and facilitate interaction in innovative ways.

The tribal sphere

Whereas the social sphere emphasises broad, diverse networks, the tribal sphere is the domain of more-focused social engagement; here marketers can use or help create consumers’ identification with groups. Consider, for example, a cult brand like Oakley, with its high-performance sunglasses, goggles and apparel, which relies heavily on tribal positioning. Not only do customers wear branded Oakley products; they also display the logo separately – by, for example, sticking decals on their cars. The brand name, detached from the product, signals inclusion in a tribe dedicated to extreme sports and athletic excellence.

The psychological sphere

The principles that guide successful advertising in the psychological realm are simple: such ads provide new ways to articulate ideas, engender habit formation, guide reasoning and elicit emotion.

Psychological-sphere ads typically operate in one of four ways.

They use language to establish a cognitive beachhead for a brand. They may co-opt commonplace words or phrases, as Staples did with “That was easy”, Apple with “Think different”, and Nike with “Just do it.”

They seek to create habits. “Just do it” nudges consumers to run every day or aspire to their personal best. Alka-Seltzer’s “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” was conceived years ago to train consumers to reach for the company’s product after every excessively large meal.

They guide cognition. IBM has used “Think” since its founding to inspire employees and project its values to the outside world – just as, more recently, the Economist has promoted “Think responsibly” and “Think someone under the table.”

They connect a brand with a mood or an emotion. Consider the brothers Bert and John Jacobs, who had been selling T-shirts door-to-door at colleges and street fairs, with limited success. Everything changed when they created a shirt featuring a happy-looking character, Jake, and his motto, “Life is good.” The shirt generated an immediate positive emotional response among their friends. Today Life is good Inc. sells some 900 items through 4,500 retail stores and more than 100 independently-owned shops. Although the company’s retail partners may use conventional forms of advertising, Life is good Inc advertises only through the prominent logo and slogan displayed on the products its customers buy. The slogan is rooted in the psychological sphere, promoting a frame of mind – optimism – captured in a phrase.

Placing ads in the spheres

Although advertising in the four spheres has similarities to conventional ad campaigns, it takes a customer-centric rather than a media-centric approach. Instead of focusing first on which media to emphasise in a campaign – television, web, mobile, outdoor displays – marketers should start by determining how the envisioned advertising can integrate into consumers’ lives in ways that deliver value and win their trust.

The following five steps offer a useful framework for applying this idea.

1. Define objectives first from a consumer’s, not an advertiser’s, point of view. Marketers often fail to clearly articulate their strategic goals at the outset, or the objectives they choose are vague, media-focused or excessively broad. With a spheres strategy (and proliferating media in which to use it), clear objectives and priorities are more important than ever.

2. Target the campaign to create value for consumers. Each of the spheres offers specific strengths; choosing which sphere or spheres to emphasise in an advertising effort initially and as it evolves depends on determining where the consumer’s and the advertiser’s objectives intersect.

3. Test, listen and adjust ads to improve the customer experience. Like traditional advertising strategies, a spheres-based approach requires dynamic testing. Even in the appropriate sphere an ad campaign may be ineffective for a variety of reasons. Therefore it’s critical to “listen” to the intended targets of a campaign with the technological and conventional tools available and adjust course in real time.

4. Evaluate an expansion strategy. Depending on results or the shifting objectives of a campaign, marketers may withdraw advertising from one sphere or extend it into additional spheres.

5. Constantly look for ways to refresh the message. Consumer attitudes and behaviours are evolving at an accelerating pace. Marketers must constantly gauge campaign performance and adapt their approach in real time.

Jeffrey F Rayport advises corporations and private equity firms focused on retail, information and marketing services. He is a founding faculty member of Omnicom University and the managing partner of the digital strategy firm MarketspaceNext.

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