The 6th Sense

Substance-based Brand Marketing


As assaults on our attention become more fragmented, marketers need to make wiser investments with their dollars. That doesn’t mean just finding efficiencies through cheaper media, programmatic or even measurement. Instead, the very nature of where and how traditional ‘marketing dollars’ are applied needs to shift.

We need to move from what is obviously advertising toward more welcome forms of content; from content consumed by a mass audience toward interactions that are innately personal; and from shifty distractions toward forms of cumulative benefit.

In other words, companies are no longer welcome to knock at our doors. They must show up with real gifts.

We see this in the form of expanded experiential marketing budgets, in the relentless quests to strike cultural gold through a viral YouTube hit and myriad other ways. But experiential can’t scale, and chart-topping videos are rare — not to mention both are inherently ephemeral, and neither are sustainable, brand-building strategies.

There’s another approach worth considering. It’s one that’s less obvious, and less utilized by marketers because of its organizational distance from typical communications. Let’s call it “substance-based” brand marketing, which applies the principles of product and service design to a communications strategy that’s intended to grow a business, product or service.

Even if our clients aren’t regularly briefing us to create products, per se, the same principles can be leveraged to elevate the most boring of marketing plans.

Each of these could be considered communications designed from a substance-based approach:

  • ‘Softer’ ware: Content that expands the utility or entertainment of the “hardware” (product or service) like tutorials, infographics or interpretations of crowdsourced data.
  • Complementary Offerings: The creation of additional products or services that are consistent with the brand, and actually augment the core offering.
  • Migration Aids: Communications that ease the transition from old devices or platforms to new ones.
  • Smart Search: Providing contextual, smarter search tools that can connect brand messaging with product experience.

What each of these share is that all work toward attracting non-users, but also offer benefits to current users. Dollars spent amplify awareness and the product spec simultaneously, and the effect deepens the underlying value of the product next to emerging competitive forces.


Let’s use the example of marketing a new AI assistant like Google Home.

Despite the excitement around AI, a substance-based approach assumes that product has not reached maximum utility. Few products can stand up to that test, as nearly all suffer from outdated, locked-in ideas at the inception phases. For home-based AI assistants, we’d start by assuming that the way we interface with them might evolve or that the skills they’re capable of will expand. When a creative instead assumes that the final product is fixed, a cynical bias can enter the mind. This could lead to superficial treatments.

Understanding this, the substance-based brand-builder would look for ways to expand the effective range of utility in a way that both builds awareness and amplifies the value of the offering. Whether that’s through developing new digital products, leaning into owned media or forging partnerships, the idea is to focus on utility to hit both goals at once. The point is to not rely on messaging alone, but to take on the task of creating usability.

For example, we might decide to create 100 online videos that serve as both humorous “what if” ads as well as user tutorials that could be indexed on the product’s website. We might consider amplifying the films within an online community where frequent AI assistant questions are asked, or placing them in locations where the brand can leverage them to improve the assistant’s results. An ambitious outcome might even be a piece of gifted hardware or custom app that extends the ecosystem of the original device.

The result is more impactful work, a more innovative brand, and a more exciting scope of work. But the deeper payoff is in the quality of connection with the audience. By improving usability, we’re accomplishing something that one-way communications can never do, no matter how hyper-targeted — that is, enhancing the product itself.

Substance-based marketing achieves a shift that Mark Bonchek and Vivek Bapat articulate in their Harvard Business Review paper, “The Most Successful Brands Focus on Users — Not Buyers.” In it, the authors argue that “Where traditional brands focus on positioning their brands in the minds of their customers, digital brands focus on positioning their brands in the lives of their customers.”

The former, they contend, are ‘purchase brands’ while the latter are ‘usage brands.’ It’s a timely distinction that has exciting implications for how marketing is accomplished. If purchase brands play the polite courtier, usage brands woo through actions. In other words, their communications efforts add utility.


So what do we need to do to change our orientation toward a substance-based model? Here are six considerations that marketing strategists should consider if they want their dollars to disrupt in welcome ways and deliver more sustainable value:

  1. Think of product-usability first. We should consider digital products, bespoke apps, information aids and other forms of the product mix as genuine marketing platforms. And create them if none already exist to build upon.
  2. Look for value outside of budgetary buckets. We have to counter the channel biases that characterize traditional marketing. For example, how can we unlock budget that sits beyond marketing, and even begin to question the limitations we impose by restricting an agency’s area of focus. A solution that generates new value at the product and usage level should not get squashed because it doesn’t fit neatly in an existing part of the marketing org chart. To do that is to endorse the bureaucracy of marketing, not its innovation.
  3. Creating value cannot be the job of one group. We have to look for moments where brand, business and offering converge for our clients, and expand on the offering, rather than just describing it. In the HBR piece, the authors recommend organizations bring marketing closer to product development, as well as elevate the less-sexy but more utility-minded customer service and loyalty departments. The lesson is clear: creating value cannot be the job of one group.
  4. Distinguish through trademark aspects of interaction. Commercial identity used to simply be about clues, semiotics and codes you could choose and repeat. In the user-brand era, that isn’t always practical from a financial or timing perspective. It’s also not always the way people come to know a brand or decide if it shares their values. That tends to happen now through usage and interaction. Instead of ‘a bank’ you notice, remember and like because of how it talks about itself… it’s about the ‘financial agency’ you come to appreciate after playing with the wide range of tools they provide.
  5. Measure in terms of usage. Expand the dashboard from Share of Voice to Share of Use. Instead of focusing alone on the short-cut to purchase, evaluate how many meaningful interactions could be staged between brand and audience. For product owners, what frequency of valued interactions have been accomplished as a result of brand communications?
  6. Diversify the ways usability comes to life in marketing efforts. As the samurai instruct, hold the sword loosely. Avoid going too deep into one thing — campaign, brand idea, product type — because you need to hit on users’ complexity. You need to test and learn where new forms of utility are most treasured in the product experience. You also need to show up in different ways if users are to keep your offerings in their carousel of go-to products and engage you with an active mind.

Across all of the above, usage takes center stage. That’s because as the shift toward digital marketing continues to prioritize micro targeting, we must also engage individuals in ways that expand — instead of those that merely illuminate — the trifecta of product, brand and user.

We must continue to fight against one-way communication. In a digital age, every marketer can act intrusively, and every consumer is similarly empowered to shut out intrusion by way of filters or simply turning off a platform. That’s why new marketing requires that value emerges in addition to novelty or entertainment. Delivering utility, timeliness, renewal and return on a person’s time in a way that adds value.

If we do this well, a brand’s promise and proof will accomplish what they should. They will thoroughly become the same thing.

Author: James Cockerille

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