MAY 12, 2015

Brands are the new politicians (and what we can do to stop it)


If my push notifications recently are any indication, election fever is officially upon us! For the next five hundred days, we’ll find ourselves slaves to publishers and pundits obsessively dissecting each move by our presidential candidates like a bad horse race. We’ll hear of their expertly crafted messages, their graceful grassroots strategies, their artfully chosen pantsuits. Predictably, there will be no substance. What do these candidates actually stand for? Skimming the advertising trades over my morning coffee, the mind-numbing sound of CNN as my soundtrack, I can’t help but feel disillusioned – not just as a voter, but as a marketer.

Because brands are becoming too much like politicians. And digital has made it worse.

It’s long been accepted that politics are, to some extent, inherently corrupt. A system where principles give way to popularity, votes are bought not earned and egos are fueled by a media machine talking mostly to itself. The world of marketing is too close for comfort. Social media has created unnecessary pressure for brands to constantly talk – even when they have nothing to say. They want to “cut through the clutter” in pursuit of “eyeballs,” too often using sensationalized messages that have nothing to do with what they actually make or sell. The finish line is homepage placement on Adweek, probably with a shoutout to a best-in-class consumer “engagement strategy” that no real consumer will ever see. But let us not despair…

The truth is, that dog-and-pony show is the easy route. The more difficult and essential task is putting in the work to build a strong brand vision, with product that actually delivers on it.

The savviest marketers aren’t the ones with the flashiest YouTube stunt or April Fools tweet, but those with authentic principles at the core of their business. Take Everlane, who’s built their brand on supply chain transparency. They’re able to effortlessly bring that message to life across channels because it is simple and real. Then look at Hilary’s recent campaign announcement – a watered down ‘viral’ video that speaks in no way to her experience, policy plans or point of view. Too many brands fall into that same trap, selling fluff rather than offering substance.

Speaking of selling, let’s talk about money. Behind every candidate is a boatload of campaign funding, an unspoken reality of our political system that drives the world of advertising as well. And while brands are inextricably to commerce, as marketers we often act like large budgets are the only way to make an impact. That’s just not true. People are tuning out the noise more than ever; we must <em>earn</em> their attention and trust instead of buying their likes, shares and views.

Brands don’t have the luxury of a four-year term. Consumers will vote for your opponent with the click of a button if you don’t pass their bullshit meters. As we race ever closer to the election, marketers will be wise to leave the politicking to the candidates and instead consider how they can restore purpose to their brand, business model and communication strategy.

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