Is preaching to the choir bad marketing?

Greatly successful brands make choosing and buying as simple as possible. But achieving this requires careful strategy

Updated: Jul 23, 2021 11:53:54 AM UTC
Image: Shutterstock

When defending niche plans, it is fashionable amongst marketers to use Nike and Apple as examples of ‘pure focus’ in brand building. It is important to decode their success, if only to evidence that their customer acquisition is based very much on mass marketing.

Nike is a great example of a deeply committed brand pivoting away from core enthusiasts, throwing its circle wider and doing so via brilliant communications. By 1987, Nike had fallen to third position behind Reebok and Adidas after more than two decades of strong credential building as a ‘running shoe specialist’ in America. It was seen as the maker of technically advanced, sleek shoes for athletes who wanted to push their bodies. But this niche bastion began to crumble when there was a transition from ‘running’ to ‘sports and fitness’ in a more general sense.

Nike till then was a successful but very narrowly defined brand. Its narrative was ‘for and about’ serious male athletes intent on winning. Nike was talking mostly to its devotees. Like with most deluded brands trapped in past success, corporate hymns and self-praise passed off as advertising. History doesn’t repeat itself in branding, it dies as a weak echo. ‘The law of marginal futility’ began to show its effect. Nike then made a defining change. It sought to being noticed by all. It made itself mentally available to more people. Nike squared the circle with the famous W+K campaign ‘Just Do It’. It was about the ability to feel a sense of exceptionalism accessible to all, not merely to gifted athletes.

With this transition, Nike went from being an aspirational brand for a few to being an inspirational brand for all. Thereafter, it was about hope and effort. It did not make a distinction between encouragement and exhortation. ‘Just do it’ is for all, whether you are a couch potato or an Olympian. It was understood easily, everywhere and by everyone. Nike never looked back.

This is also the journey that Apple undertook when Steve Jobs came back to save a sinking brand. Experienced marketers also fail to see that Apple is—where it matters—a highly successful ‘traditional marketer’. Steve Jobs moved every lever to expand share of market. He launched the cheapest iMac as a first portfolio addition. He moved beyond his loyal customer base. He kept product at the heart of all advertising and expanded physical access. It was not about rebel creativity. It was about a wonderful marriage of technology, design, utility and a relentless association building top of the consumer mind.

Till today, Apple spends most of their money on traditional advertising—in particular TV and outdoor. Apple's advertising is consistent and looks much the same as it did a decade ago. It is always product focused. Apple spends minimally on social media and almost all their online ad budgets highlight performance. In other words, they do contrary to what’s awarded, trended, and sanctified theory.

That is what all greatly successful brands do. They make choosing and buying as simple as possible. But, to achieve this, they must establish collective meaning and be consistent in the associations they communicate. The price of establishing unique relevance through targeted messaging is that you end up sacrificing shared cultural meaning. Many companies are going too far in their veneration of specific data concerning the individual. Putting individual relevance before collective meaning is not some gold dust.

So, let’s establish that brand building is about:

  • Common sense as opposed to complication
  • Universalism as against individualism; and
  • Well-defined as against fluid or amorphous.

 Being something to everybody beats trying to be everything to somebody!

 Mass brands must always be:

  • Appealing to common senseThe speed of technological change disrupts society in ways increasingly impossible to predict. In contrast, human beings remain unchanged. Underpinning all decision making, an important aspect of our unchanging behaviour is the fact we evolved to be 'cognitive misers'. As such, the brand's primary role is to reduce the cognitive burden. A brand simplifies choice, signals an identity and communicates a position everyone can grasp. Beyond making the purchase decision easier, brands can also have a symbolic value, enabling people to express their identity to others. Across every age and culture, we have hunted for ways to acquire social cachet; consumption has always been social, never private.In this view of purpose, the brand provides a simple way of choosing what to buy, conveying an identity and creating perceived value. To achieve this, the brand must establish collective meaning.
  • Universal: The individual is less important than the entire group in establishing meaning. That is how brands offer a social dimension.Brands are in the business of anticipating and shaping mass behaviour. Humans rely on brands as ‘buying shortcuts’ based on shared knowledge and understanding. If a brand fails to demonstrate what it stands for amongst non-buyers, it risks losing the social dimension.
  • Well-defined: A brand must not dilute its meaning chasing new things or by irregular communication. This requires the shared associations and meanings around the brand to remain consistent across groups of people. It has to have one unifying idea. Dove, for instance, is anchored in body positive feminism; Marlboro owns rugged frontier masculinity; and Patagonia conveys adventure and environmentalism.

To remain effective, advertising must find new ways to repeat itself. Own a few things in the consumer’s mind and own them through repeated association. Build positive, habitual bias.

The writer is a global head of marketing and brand for Royal Enfield. Views are personal

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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