It's what you do that counts

20 Dec 2016|Paul Cowper

I was recently at a discussion about how marketing and brands need to develop when someone made a pretty startling comment, they said “the entire language of marketing is outdated.”

That sounds exactly like the kind of thing that clever marketing people love to say after a couple of glasses of Viognier. It’s a nice soundbite, provocative and engaging, and liable to draw wise, approving nods from their peers, but I actually think that this particular comment’s pretty revealing. What’s inside that statement is the fact that too much of how we think about, describe and define brands is about their messages, their tonality and their values. Historically we have focussed on how brands appear and what they say – but it really isn’t about what you say, it’s what you do that counts.

Message alone is rarely enough to cut through on its own, it needs to be supported and amplified by actions, not randomly selected ones, but characteristic brand behaviours. Those actions which closely track the brand’s image but deliver it in a way that is or appears remarkable.

Take Brewdog who recently released “DIY Dog”, giving access to the recipes to all their beers past and present, that’s a great piece of on-brand behaviour for that notorious rebel brand. It doesn’t break so much as ignore category rules and in doing so reinforces Brewdog’s outsider status. Will anyone actually go to the trouble of replicating the recipe? Unlikely, but that’s not really the point, the point is that the action was firstly characteristic of Brewdog, and secondly was remarkable enough to secure coverage.

The idea of brand behaviour is not radical, many businesses would subscribe to the thinking, but when it comes to delivering it, it’s so often down to a consistently supported sponsorship. Sponsorship is great of course and can further your brand’s reach in a meaningful and significant way, but really this is an action in support of someone else’s action. It might be synergistic, but it’s rarely characteristic because people are fully aware and accepting of the inherently transactional nature of sponsorship.

Equally, it’s important to point out that this isn’t simply “doing good”. Indeed it increasingly seems that for businesses to “offset” their perceived negative impact with a positive contribution is a threshold expectation, not a competitive advantage. A brand’s behaviours might not necessarily be good for the world, but they must be of value and meaning to the lives of the people they target.

So to get your brand behaviours just right, you need two, very obvious things, to know yourself, and to know your audience. Knowing yourself requires you to have a deep but intuitive sense of your brand’s character and how it will act. Purpose is one step in the right direction (and so much has been written on that I shaln’t go over it again here) but Purpose can be lofty, designed as it so often is to engage the hearts and minds of people in the business. Now we need to engage their hands too, get them doing, not just understanding and empathising. That’s why you need a clear Cultural Role, an identified area of life at large which your brand is authentically and relevantly interested in and a role you can valuably play in that space.

Knowing your audience should be straightforward, but most businesses actually know their audience in great detail in relation to how they purchase and consume their product, but hardly at all outside of that. The chances are that the ways you can be of value to people are immeasurably more multiple and more meaningful outside of your category that within it, so it’s well worth finding out where there’s overlap between what they care about and what you do and can affect.

So armed with an enhanced knowledge of your brand and your audience, you have to get your behaviours right, and for brand behaviour to be coherent, distinctive and relevant, your brand has to be able both to act, and to react. This has big implications for how brands need to be run, you need to be able to flex your brand’s behaviours in response to what’s happening around, but not to such a degree that it confuses people or puts your authenticity at risk. It’s a little like managing a sports team, you have an objective (which is probably similar to your competitors) but you have your own way of achieving that, your style of play, how you operate, your reputation. Yet your campaign consists of a sequence of challenges that differ, and to succeed you need to be adaptable. The team has to be set up in advance of each game, but also able to shift and adapt during that game.


Written by Paul Cowper, Managing Director, UK

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