Hooked on the quick fix

A new marketing trend says a subtle, intelligent approach to selling will lead to long-term rewards. Richard Murray thinks branding designers could learn from it

Anyone with a marketing background is likely, at some point in their life, to have read the works of Philip Kotler. You could say his renown in academic circles is as significant as that of Eric Gill or Paul Rand in the world of design.

In his latest book, Kotler on Marketing, he accuses brand owners of practising “Neanderthal marketing”- applying old thinking to current situations only to experience disappointing results. It strikes me that many of his arguments also hold true when applied to current practices within brand design.

His principle message is that it is a mistake to think that marketing is about selling a product, rather than meeting a real need. Most in the know would concur.

Put this in a design context and it is clear that the “old school” design approach of product representation and functional messages is increasingly out of date.

In designspeak, selling amounts to a trusted bag of tricks Рbig logos, even bigger ingredients, coding banners, and a rat-bag collection of other in-your-face clich̩s.

While these elements may have been thought to aid the selling process, it is now time to replace the emphasis by substituting telling for selling. Succinctly telling the consumer what brand X stands for, rather than simply saying what it is or what it looks like. After all, most of us know what chopped tomatoes look like, but how many know what Napolina stands for? You would be equally stumped if the same question was posed with regard to a whole host of other brands.

Kotler goes on to observe that too much emphasis is placed on customer acquisition instead of retention. Yes, that also rings true. How many briefs do you receive that are more about encouraging trial rather than building long-term resonance? We know the scenario. Again, more intrusive elements, brighter colours and so on may deliver a temporary sales pick up, but in terms of building a long-term franchise, forget it. You don’t have to be Einstein to appreciate that you’ll be trying to “out-impact” again in 12 months.

The short-term imperative – dealing with the nowí rather than taking a long-term view of the brand – is another common tendency in the Neanderthal world. Many will be familiar with the client-borne concept of moving an ailing brand forward in small, comfortable stages. But does anyone know of a case where it has worked? Perhaps it’s time to implode the myth that established brands can only evolve. After all, “a chasm cannot be crossed in two steps”.

For some struggling, but well-known brands, the key to long-term survival may be to fundamentally reinvent themselves. And, not surprisingly, Kotler is critical of the Neanderthal practice of commissioning brand communications in isolation. Despite talking of integrated communications for well over a decade, we are yet to see the benefits of real convergence. One day might we hope to work from a standard brand brief? Advertising, packaging, identity, websites, environments. Different expressions building a unified meaning.

To move beyond Neanderthal design is an exhilarating challenge; one which I believe we must grasp if design is to maintain its credibility as a marketing tool. It will mean a redefinition of how branding works and we are already beginning to see a gradual step change.

Like it or loathe it, the British Airways tailfin identity shows the strength of a collective approach rather than the usual uniform look, as does Goldfish.

Retailers have overtaken many manufacturers, showing that you can’t hide behind a logo if it means nothing to the consumer. Even a mass market brand like Dolmio has managed to ditch all reference to food and gain customers.

As we contemplate the new agenda we should consider the findings of a global communications audit conducted by Research International. It concluded that the most effective way to reach consumers in mature markets is to entertain. Not with jokes and comedy noses, but rather by engaging with the consumer. Using subtlety not intrusion, intrigue not literal response, challenge not predictability, and surprise not the familiar. While the study was advertising-focused, I’m sure the findings also hold true for the broader interpretation of communications. The one which includes design!

For some time now there have been calls for a new approach to branding within design circles. With a marketing guru of Kotler’s reputation championing the cause, we must hope his influence will begin to filter through client circles. The dawn of a new era may not be that far away.

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