“There is no such thing as a new idea... we simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
The rise of mobile has brought with it huge opportunities for marketers, but also significant challenges in the fight for consumer attention.
There is a groundswell of excitement around a ‘new paradigm’ in which brands become de facto publishers of content, and there is also a good deal of skepticism. But this is hardly revolutionary. In fact, we’ve been here before, and the result was an epoch of unparalleled brand growth, and a deepening relationship between brands and their marketing agency partners.
We may be on the cusp of a rebirthing of this Golden Age.
Chicago in 1930 is a long way from modern Indonesia, but bear with me. In October of that year an actress called Irna Phillips was approached by Chicago radio station WGN to produce a daily day-time show about a family, a show created primarily to sell advertising slots to brands targeting the wives and mothers who would be tuning in, typically soap makers. The show wouldn’t win any drama awards and finished in a bitter syndication lawsuit, but the genie was out of the bottle.
What we now call ‘product placement’ fast became a popular way of credibly weaving a brand’s utility into a narrative. Rinso from Lever Brothers (now Unilever) mastered this art of what was then called ‘interweaving’ with their daytime drama Big Sister in 1936.
Since these products were part of a labor-saving revolution of more effective soaps and revolutionary machines, it wasn’t as anodyne as you might imagine; far from it. It was an exciting part of a brave new world. Think organic produce today, or a Dyson vacuum.
Brands’ deeper involvement in content creation inexorably led them to need a better understanding of the consumer. There’s nothing worse than promoting disaffection among your target audience by aligning with a storyline they balk at.
This led to the development of an ideal ‘structure’ which Hubbell Robinson, Jr. of the advertising agency Young and Rubicam described as being ‘based on four cornerstones’, namely:
- simple characterization
- understandable predicaments
- female characters in central roles
- philosophical relevance.
Y&R’s slogan at the time was “resist the usual,” and it became a major force in radio in the 1930s and 1940s. It produced some of the top prime-time programs, such as The Jack Benny Program. By the 1950s and 1960s, ‘soap operas’ were a staple of the US TV landscape.
Pardon me for interrupting
Fast forward to 2016 and in agency offices across Indonesia and the world, a new debate rages: “We aren’t in the business of content,” clients say. “It’s a distraction, we sell widgets.”
We know that content that is overtly brand-centric usually receives little in the way of ‘likes’ or ‘shares’. But something that is intrinsically entertaining, informative or validating has much more chance of achieving a degree of ‘virality’.
So how do we get branding right in this context?
When Steve Jobs came back to rescue an ailing Apple in 1997, one of the first things he did was launch the ‘Think Different’ campaign – hardly entertaining content in the traditional sense but, undeniably arresting and thought-provoking. Here’s the thing, though: it thumbed its nose at some inviolable ‘so-called’ rules. Tiny Logo. No reference to the product.
But it worked. And in that there’s something we can look to for developing content paradigms.
Think Different wasn’t brand or product-focused in the traditional way. It simply shared with the audience What the Brand Stood For. Implicit in this was the notion that if you the audience shared those values, you’d feel closer to the brand. Hardly the science of putting men on the moon, but undeniably effective.
“Think Different” sounds to me like “Resist the Usual” in a different vernacular.
As Seth Godin so eloquently puts it, channel proliferation means we quickly have to move from an era of interruption marketing to one based on permission. One consequence of this is likely to be brands becoming the new publishers, aggregators and curators. The content brands publish must be searchable, shareable – and actually intrinsically worth spending time on.
The beauty of all this is that there’s no need to interrupt if you have this ‘shared value’ and dollops of ‘structural branding’, in which the brand is woven into the fabric of the content. The white-knuckle deception of pre-roll, ad skipping, and ad blocking evaporates if people actually want to see your content.
Content structure has also evolved, to suit consumers who are not just second-screening but third-screening as they battle the modern plague of ‘micro-boredom’. So, while episodes of 1950s TV soaps ran for as long as 27 minutes, by 2005, webisodes were running for only 5 to 15 minutes, and mobisodes now last just a minute or two.
There are many views regarding what was - or is - the Golden Age of advertising. Given today’s new modes of content dissemination, new paradigms in brand-content relationships, and an ever-enriching appreciation by brands of users’ needs and aspirations, it’s just possible that we are NOW on the cusp of a new Golden Age of advertising, with content once again front and centre.