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Societal change adds challenges for brands, alters role of marketing

Societal change adds challenges for brands, alters role of marketing

In this new era, brands must benefit

the public, along with the person

J. Walker Smith

Chief Knowledge Officer, Brand & Marketing



There is a narrative about the future of marketing that we have heard many times. It involves things like AI, mobile, Millennials, experiences and personalization. Obviously, all of these things are important for the future. But they beg the question of marketing for what? AI for what? Mobile for what? Millennials embracing what? And so forth. These are all part of the future of marketing, but not the essence of where the future is headed.

The future of marketing now emerging is the Era of the Public, a fundamental shift of priorities and expectations that will redefine the broader context within which everything else will unfold. It is helpful to think about what’s to come against the background of what has come before. The first era of marketing was the Era of the Product. It began with the Industrial Revolution and was moving at full speed by the early decades of the 20th century. Consumers at that time enjoyed little of the material abundance that we take for granted today. So the main purpose of marketing was to introduce people to products. Advertising sold better stuff —products to improve and enrich people’s lives.

The key figure of this era was Albert Lasker, CEO of Lord & Thomas, one of the leading ad agencies at the time. Lasker invented the job of copywriter for which he articulated a strict job description. Copywriters were to write ads that talked about the product. Lasker’s creative philosophy was called the “preemptive claim,” which was later echoed by Ted Bates Chairman Rosser Reeves’ related idea of the “unique selling proposition.”

Ultimately, the product era was a victim of its own success. As material abundance became more pervasive and people became more accustomed to the prosperity of product-filled lives, ads talking about products became less interesting and less persuasive. At the same time, the rise of individuality and self-fulfillment during the mid- to late sixties required that brands do more than just deliver better stuff.

Marketing entered a new era. The Era of the Person de-emphasized the product per se and focused instead on the person buying the product. Marketing and advertising were less about what you owned and more about who you are, who you want to be, and who you can become with the right brand. Buying became a pathway to a better self—more fulfilled, more cultivated, more connected to the broader culture of self-improvement and self-expression.

Out of this emerged the creative revolution in advertising. David Ogilvy’s “Man in the Hathaway Shirt” promised consumers they could be that person by buying that product. Bill Bernbach’s “Think Small” ad for VW pivoted on the idea that what was wrong with the product was the very thing that was right for the person. Bill Backer’s famous “Hilltop” ad for Coke panned over the crowd you wanted to belong to because they were singing an anthem true to your person, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” In fact, this ad was Coke’s response to PepsiCo’s “Pepsi Generation” campaign that pioneered the idea of selling the person not the product.

The Era of the Person has continued to this day. Lots has happened during this time, including agency conglomerates in the 1980s, the internet in the 1990s and digital in the 2000s. These have been important, but these developments have not changed the essence of marketing. Rather, they have been financial and technological refinements to the creative selling of good products to make you a better person.

In recent years, much has come together to change the domains in which brands operate. In addition to product and person, brands must now do something else as well. Not only must brands deliver a superior product for a more fulfilled person, brands must also contribute to a better society. The Era of the Public means a new brand ethic. This ethic is more than purpose, more than social responsibility, and more than good over greed. It is about brands adding the public to their portfolio of product and person.

Economic and demographic macro forces are driving the marketplace toward a restructuring and a reassignment of responsibility for building a better society. Old institutions aren’t going away, but going forward, business will be expected to play no less of a part in this than any other institution, and, in many cases, the most important part. Not simply a new purpose for brands, but a new ethic.

Consumers expect brands to step up to this public role. In the 2019 Kantar Global MONITOR study, 66 percent of consumers across 20-plus countries agreed that it is important for brands to be “committed to making our society better.” This is significantly higher than just a few years before when, in an Edelman study across eight markets, only half agreed. Brands must now deliver a benefit to the public, not just to the person.

The public brand ethic will not be without its challenges. Consumers are demanding more of brands at the same time that they trust them less. Consumers want brands to take a stand without taking a side. Balancing the interests of shareholders and stakeholders will require new financial metrics and strategic planning processes. Monetizing purpose and responsibility remains difficult, especially for critical public needs like sustainability. Brands must not deliver less as they do more nor endanger hard-earned goodwill in the pursuit of hard-fought societal gains.

Whatever the challenges, though, brands must measure up against the new expectations of the public era. As a dominant emphasis in marketing, the public era opens up new opportunities and fresh possibilities for value and growth. The overarching context within which everything else will find form, shape and direction will be defined by the future of marketing, and that will be the Era of the Public.