Marketers Are An Hourglass. Consumers An Onion.
By Nick Law, Creative Chairperson, Accenture Song
Next week, the 70th Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity kicks off showcasing the world’s best creative ideas, campaigns, innovations and fueled with conversations around emerging technology, including Generative AI.
It also might be worth having a conversation about how we’ve let complex problems blind us to simple solutions.
In an attempt to leverage the dizzying multiplicity of the internet, we’ve divided ourselves into competing capabilities and delivered a too many dissonant experiences for customers. And the result is that customer simplicity has been overrun by business possibilities.
We’ve forgotten that, in the end, our job is to help people make decisions – who to like and what to buy. Complexity confuses decision making, whereas simplicity gives weight to them. But to achieve simplicity, we need to reshape the industry.
Marketing departments and agency groups are shaped like an hourglass, with brand at the top and performance at the bottom, but barely connected in the skinny middle. This design isn’t intentional – but reflects how those two cultures struggle to work together.
The brand world is a mature culture of storytelling and craft, suspicious of the scientific world of algorithms. Meanwhile, the performance world is young and bright, with a deep understanding of modern media and technology, sneering at the hand-wavy romantics at the top.
If you were unkind, you’d say the top is making beautiful things that no one sees, and the bottom is making ugly things that no one can avoid.
But the two tribes represent a ruinous false choice. If the industry looks like an hourglass, the shape of customer behavior looks like an onion. The funnel now bulges in the middle with a dynamic and expanding consideration set. While brand marketers are trying to make people feel something at the top, and the performance marketers are trying to get people to act at the bottom, their customers are in the middle, trying desperately to understand; unmoved by the brand unless they understand the value and unmotivated by performance unless they understand the brand.
It’s in this middle, where people are spending their time trying to make decisions, that marketers have left customers on their own. The result of this disconnected thinking is too much content on too many platforms, searches yielding confusing results, videos with outdated or incomplete information, community questions with competing opinions, and social posts which say more about the influencer than the product.
Sorting through all this is only going to get harder. Soon, generative AI will create an infinite longtail of weird third-party content that will make today’s internet look like a pamphlet.
I know what you’re thinking; we need to connect brand and performance. Yes – but we need to do it by starting in the middle, the place that clarifies decisions. It’s where we decide whether what we’ve heard about a brand, or a product makes it relevant to us. It’s where we try to understand. Starting in the middle because understanding makes you feel more about the brand and act more when you’re ready to buy.
In light of this, we need to rethink brand and performance. The grammar of brand advertising comes from a time before everything had an interface. In the absence of an interaction, the best brands could hope for was to make you feel. And if you’re seeing a product for the first time, the best way to have you feel is with metaphor. This became every agency creative’s Pavlovian response to a brief. It’s why we saw so many visual metaphors – shampoo that wants to make you feel like you’re under a rainforest waterfall, for example.
At the other end of the hourglass, the best practices of performance advertising have been distorted by robotic wish-thinking. Too often, the right message at the right time looks like the wrong ad, targeted with systematic intelligence but created without emotional intelligence. More often than not, this leaves machines optimizing a boring ad into an annoying one.
So, the middle looks a lot like product advertising – accompanied by elegant demos, clear comparison modules, configurators; anything that gives you confidence in your choice. At the top of the funnel, it’s similar but more heightened and dramatic, done with taste and artfulness – and free of the well-worn metaphorical tropes that obscure the product and carry the stink of advertising. At the bottom, it’s confirming your choice – distilling the benefits and dignifying its algorithmic delivery with craft and clarity.
Curiously, one of the most valuable brands in the world has been doing this for decades. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, they made beige boxes that crashed. While he cleaned up the product line, and before the launch of the company-saving iMac, they treaded water with “Think Different,” the company’s last brand campaign. Ever since then, the brand has been built with beautiful clear product advertising. I bought the iPod when I read “10,000 songs in your pocket”. I bought the iPhone when I saw “There’s an app for that.”
If this was true in the late 90s, it’s even truer in today’s more complex environment. Helping customers make decisions has become harder and, therefore more important. Because simplicity brings clarity to decisions, and simplicity is about synthesizing, we need to start where things connect, in the middle.
Here are three things to consider:
Be interesting. Creativity matters. If the context is right, the concept is fresh, and its craft is beautiful, people will pay attention.
Make value clear. Once you’ve got people’s attention, don’t waste their time with tired tropes and bloated metaphors. Help them understand why they should choose you. You can entertain and demonstrate at the same time.
Justify the decision. Post-decision, don’t give people a reason to loop back and agonize over yet another sprawling consideration set. Romance the hell out of the product. Contextualize it so it makes perfect sense. Make them feel great about what they’ve put in their cart.
There will be rewards for the companies who can guide their customers through the increasing complexity and chaos of modern media and technology. But first, they need to reshape themselves around the middle – where they can bring the clarity and simplicity that gives weight to decisions.
In the end, isn’t this our job?
Nick Law is Creative Chairperson at Accenture Song.