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01 NOVEMBER 2021
The wise brand built its house on the rock of strategy
by Bill Stephens

More than 30 years ago, a television advertisement opened on a family man lifting the cover from an old Volkswagen (VW) Beetle. A song overlays the action: “I remember the days of my life / I recall the faces / Mostly yours / Magic moments …” The viewer is taken on a journey of the man’s life, from meeting the love of his life through various ups and downs as he ages gracefully. In each phase of his life a VW is present – the Beetle, a Golf Mk1, a Golf Mk2 and eventually a Caravelle. At the climax, he takes his 18-year-old son into the garage and hands him the keys to the old Beetle so that he, too, may start his journey of love and life, with a VW central to the story.

Once upon a time there was a strategy and big idea whose primary objective was to build a meaningful relationship between a consumer and a brand, to build empathy, to nourish love and drive understanding between the brand and its consumers. Some have maintained that orientation today, others have allowed themselves to be dictated to by an erratic, cluttered world of instant gratification.

Advertising in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t need to consider, contend with, or leverage social and digital media. In the absence of the rapid-fire nature of social media, the deep-rooted brand positioning didn’t deviate until the product, market or consumer changed, and then the overall strategy was recalibrated and taken forward with the new market reality and positioning.

The strategy was oriented towards a long-term brand positioning – this was at the forefront of developing a campaign for any medium. The tactical part of the execution was in how the advertising campaigns would address a market problem or shift, but that intervention slotted into the overarching strategy for the brand. It did not exist as a standalone add-on.

Today’s world

Nowadays campaigns come and go. Most activity is short term, with a short-term lens. The horizon is not on the viewfinder because campaigns are often dictated by the media environment and the modern consumer. Today’s consumer is very different from the consumer of the 1980s and 1990s who was less likely to switch and change brands on a whim.

This is a massive challenge for marketers today: now they must connect with volatile consumers prone to chopping and changing depending on price, taste, market conditions, options and social media opinions. The world, and all the options therein, are at their fingertips. Today, there is a dissonance between consumer and brand that marketers back then just didn’t have to contend with. Brand loyalty is far more challenging in today’s environment.

Today, I can buy a car online. I don’t have to go anywhere or sit down and talk to anyone, whereas 20 years ago I needed to go into a dealer and connect with the salesperson, who, as the frontline brand representative, would work at building a relationship with me. Today I can make an online booking for a service, drop the car off, collect it and drive home. But back then, the service manager became a key post-purchase conduit between the brand and the customer. Yesteryear was built on personal connection – a fundamental aspect of human nature. Today, the transaction is mostly impersonal.

However, just because the world has changed, our human affinity for connection hasn’t. What if we could take that magic dust from 30 years ago and sprinkle it on today’s work, on today’s brands, and develop the same type of brand loyalty? We most certainly can, and whenever I encounter it I find it to be a revelation and love the experience.

Smart brand positioning today

The key is to not get caught up in the whims of today’s environment. Instead, the focus should lie in crafting an advertising and communications strategy that looks at the nuances of today’s consumer, taking into account all the changes that have made the world so different and finding a positioning that builds a long-term relationship.

Consider the clothing and apparel brand Patagonia. It is a global premium brand that has at its core an unwavering sensitivity to the environment. With materials that are sourced from farms and regions that are environmentally sustainable, it has found a niche for its highly priced, long-established brand that gives it a reason for being and a real purpose. Most importantly, it gives consumers a reason to purchase.

My first online Patagonia purchase arrived with a hand-written thank you note from the Gone store manager – a glimmer of old-school marketing packaged in the efficient and high-paced world of online commerce and delivery. This relationship has been further nurtured with consistent, ongoing communication that is relevant to me and my purchase.

This is an example of a 2021 brand that is executing a long-term strategy, with a clear brand positioning designed to build a long-term relationship and loyalty with the consumer.

This is in stark contrast to a large proportion of communications and advertising today that is short-term focused, with fewer brands capable or willing to take a long-term positioning that sets up a competitive advantage. Nike is an example of a brand that has used the compass of a long-term strategy to nurture “Nike people”.

Nando’s has become an iconic brand not because it has a unique product offering, but because the brand has been built on a clear long-term brand positioning and communication strategy. It has established an incredible bond and relationship with consumers around the world that gives its Portuguese-style chicken a massive market advantage.

The role of the agency

In the rapid-fire digital world, a big risk is that too many clients think they can do everything in-house, which, by the very nature of having it as an in-house function may favour executing short-term campaigns over a long-term brand marketing and communications strategy that secures brand loyalty.

The most important thing that an agency can do to make itself indispensable to a client is to work off a sound, insightful strategic offering. If strategy is the cornerstone of building a long-term brand relationship, and an agency’s strategic capability is valued and paramount to the client, that agency becomes indispensable. Together with the client, it owns the brand.

However, if the relationship is to make an advert and move on to the next one, then the agency is disposable, a transactional service provider. It would appear that in the mad rush of the high-paced world, too few agencies appreciate that brands, now more than ever, depend on the strategic nous that an outstanding agency can offer. Brands require a clear, simple strategic backbone or compass to navigate the day-to-day challenges, evolve and grow over the long term. The agency should be pivotal.

A clear, well-articulated brand strategy should not put a handbrake on producing standout creative work. On the contrary. A former creative director colleague’s constant mantra was “Give me the freedom of a tight strategy”.

It would be foolish to ignore the elephant in the room. In many ways, clients themselves mirror the very consumers they wish to sell to, and chop and change between agencies on a whim. So, you have a volatile consumer who can swipe left or right and a volatile client that may not understand the strategic importance of a long-term plan. This is a major contributor to the problem of no long-term strategy and no solid foundation for a brand; instead, it morphs from campaign to campaign.

Change is beautiful – how sad would it be if the world remained static? New digital channels have given brands so many more opportunities to engage with consumers where and when they would like it, and on topics that have importance for and resonance with them. However, irrespective of the ever-evolving media landscape, an advertiser’s compass should always be set on strategy first, then tactics underpinned by an unrelenting commitment to creativity. That’s how brands will build the foundation that will support long-term loyalty. That’s how we hand the keys to the next generation.

Bill Stephens is the executive consultant for PR for M&C Saatchi Group SA.
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