It is often quite striking in the push and shove of commercial life just how much can be achieved as a consequence of deception.
Whether this be a misleading copy line, a dubious sales claim to win a new account or a mendacious “early bird offer”, deception (or convincing people, as Genesis P. Orridge might have argued in the 1981 classic album 20 Jazz Funk Greats) has almost become part of the accepted language of trade.
It can be argued that this is because the “neighbourhood” of commercial language now has a performance grammar of its own. Customers, it seems, have been trained to relate to message rather than substance.
It seems that, as a consequence, they might be unable to determine honesty so instead opt for interpreting the language of message. The message which appears to be most credible is that which ultimately is believed – even if the syntax of message is not grounded in reality.
I was therefore delighted to read this preface from an obscure 1930s book about the history of the buildings at British public school, Haileybury College:
“It was never my intention that these few pages, written in an idle moment for my own pleasure, should see the light of day: friends, however, to whom I showed them urged me…” Thus, I believe, it is customary to begin the modest introduction. In this case nothing could be further from the truth. The friends to whom I showed this book, written with the express intention of publication, begged me, for the most part to burn or otherwise destroy it, saying that no good ever came of holding up the mirror to ugliness, that it was better to turn a blind eye to evils that could no longer be remedied.
Thus wrote Wilfrid Blunt in “The Haileybury Buildings” (1936). He has a certain honesty about the scope of his ambition which I find admirable.
Many years ago, I proposed a strapline for a publisher stating “Books for you, money for us”. It was never used. Although this might be taking honesty a little too far, it does often strike me that the fog of commercial grammar does little but lead to listlessness and brand weariness.
It is argued that true love is repaid by deeper investigation. This probably explains why marriages based on the visual alone rarely stand the test of time. It also explains why those based on responsive interrogation are more likely to stay the course. Given that brand marketing today is based more on the former than the latter, what is the way forward in today’s image-conscious world?
Substance, it is argued, engenders greater longevity of emotional loyalty than the fickleness of beauty. Yet today, most brands – those led by the brand strategists rather than the engineers – are designed around the brand conceit of emotional involvement. There is, surely, a conflict of interest between the producer and the marketer?
A failure of theory?
Today, following academic process, marketers and brand strategists often obsess more about perception than reality. They have been taught that a brand is a set of emotional values existing between a customer and a company to the mutual advantage of both.
Some brand strategists even adopt marketing strategies which have no strategy save campaign “recall”. The product comes second to the vanity of the strategist. Ego comes before message. The brand has become the creative’s toy.
Consequently, we are told that a new model car is a “classic” before the epithet is earned. We are told a new suite is “beautiful” as if we are unable by our own inquisition to deconstruct quality and aesthetics. In time-honoured style, we are made to believe that a brand will somehow convey the success or good looks of a “celebrity” onto ourselves. And tomorrow we wake and our lover has gone. But we saw it on TV.
The education of sheep?
Dutifully, like sheep to the dip, we as customers pass along the line to be processed and made sterile by our purchases. If we buy the “wrong” product, we are lampooned by friends and neighbours. If we buy the “right” product, everyone wants to be associated with us. Or so the marketers tell us. As Flanders and Swann might have said, “when we started buying brands, when we started making friends”…
If we ran our lives in the way many marketers try to get us to buy new products and services, we would all be on our second and third marriages by now. This is why the conceit of the brand as marketing apogee is flawed. After we have married the page 3 model or the super-hunk male, do we really want to spend the rest of our lives in the inanity of a tumble-down seaside town, our ear drums destroyed by an endless drawl of broken sentences and corrupted vowels?
But, as Jean-Marc Lehu states:
“A brand that builds relationships with consumers solely on the cognitive bases of its promise is a brand with a promise that will always be prey to the direct or indirect challenges of its competitors … In a study conducted for Young & Rubicam group, Agres (1990) clearly showed that in advertising terms, the combination of an emotive benefit and a material benefit produced superior results to the outcomes of either one of these benefits in isolation.”
(Jean-Marc Lehu – Brand Rejuvenation (Kogan Page, 2007))
Airbrush beauty is but a cracked mirror, playing to the weaknesses of our inner consciousness. So it is argued that responsible marketers should avoid the promise of false love. It is argued that marketers have a duty to profess honesty and, in so doing, attract those who are also honest. By conveying self-evident credibility, love is more likely.
The creation of loyalty through truthfulness
As in marriage, so in marketing – true love creates loyalty; critically for companies, loyalty brings costs down. This of course brings us to the nub of the issue and to an understanding of why marketing must be true: loyalty is delivered by performance.
Long after the marketers have gone home, or moved on to their next job, or been sacked, the product is all that’s left to burn in the hearts of those who relate to it. Consequently, it is suggested, it is a mistake to hire differing brand agencies in an attempt to rejuvenate brands by marketing alone. To do so is to risk all your assets on one roll of the dice. Once the brand conceit falls away, the customer gets the roving eye.
It is argued therefore that companies need once more to understand what it is they do and why they do it and to own their brands responsibly. In owning their brands, companies need to be fully alert to what they do and not rest on their laurels.
Crucially, they need to appreciate that the solution to their problems is not marketing cosmetics or the plastic surgery of brand strategy divorced from product. Marketing activity must reflect the substance of the business. Business must stay alert to customers. Quality must always be conveyed.
As Professor Malcolm McDonald famously said, marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department.
Horatio Nelson’s famous instruction – engage the enemy more closely – has now entered the world of mobile phones with Apple’s new “California” campaign. What can we learn from this to help us in our own work?
Our greatest strength, it is argued, lies in our inherent capability. Marketers who choose to make claims not supported by customer experience are sowing the seeds of instability and decline for their companies. Thus, having revolutionised the world of mobile phones with the iPhone, Apple is now having to defend itself from Samsung, Blackberry and other Android telephones.
How is it doing this? By engaging the enemy more closely. Apple has spotted that rival Android phones are all lacking a certain something. What “something”? None other than the holy grail of marketing success: consumer experience. And Apple has this in spades.
Look, feel, interaction, quality, usability. These are sophisticated traits which Apple’s competitors lack. Apple is now fighting back with a marketing campaign of profound impact – it doesn’t shout about features, it shouts about the customer. Or, more precisely, the connoisseur customer. He or she who knows what they want and knows where to get it.
So Apple has created a campaign which is not about product features but about the consumer. You, me, the world. It is argued here that Apple is able to do this because in the very first instance they focused on the consumer and not on the technology. As a consequence, they have a powerful marketing perception which no amount of technological wizardry can combat.
Perception in marketing is everything. But perception based on fact – inherent truth – is the strongest of all. Solid brand perception engenders loyalty. It also enables effective pricing and positioning strategies and, as a consequence, sustainable long term profitability.
How can we learn from Apple? The trick is not to be like Apple but to be like yourself. What is your strength? Why are you different? Why should anyone believe you? Do you really, really, really put the customer first? Yes? Well it’s time to ask them about their experience of you – do they really TRUST you?
Dressing your staff in branded tee-shirts but delivering a dreary product and poor experience will do nothing other than cause cognitive dissonance and consumer cynicism. Consistent delivery is therefore fundamental.
Only when you know yourself are you able to be stronger – to engage the enemy more closely. The strongest brands need fundamentally to be unquestionable.
For many years, A Brand Day Out has campaigned for honesty in marketing because honesty attracts and retains customers. Deception always fails in the end.
If we reflect on the essence of quality, it can be stated with reasonable certainty that a product which is good enough does not require overt sales and marketing. The goal of any company, therefore, is to create self-evident desirability; this is the key to success. Overt marketing usually implies a greater deception. Overt salesmanship most certainly does.
In book 1 of Praeterita, the autobiography of John Ruskin, the author writes of his travels in Italy thus, when describing how, through a lack of understanding of the Italian language, he needs to get by on by observation rather than discourse:
” I don’t say our isolation was meritorious, or that people in general should know no language but their own. Yet the meek ignorance has these advantages. We did not travel for adventures, nor for company, but to see with our eyes and to measure with our hearts. If you have sympathy, the aspect of humanity is more true to the depths of it than its words; and even in my own land, the things in which I have been least deceived are those which I have learned as their spectator.”
Ruskin argues therefore that focused observation without decoration reveals a substantive truth. If one takes a study of people’s emotions and movements as more important than the dialogue between them, as renowned silent film commentator, Ithankyouarthur, would support, then we can see the logic of Ruskin’s position. Emotion is conveyed by more complex methods than by the base instrument of language.
If therefore we apply the study of observation to the presentation of a product’s attributes, we can begin to understand that the item which rewards regard is that which exudes capability beyond words. We may call this inherent truth.
We can observe inherent truth in a number of items today. Let us examine a random selection of three such items.
A Morgan car. This car is, technically, unmarketable in a highly competitive world, but it is what it is. Consumers judge it not for spurious claims, “clever” advertising and brand conceits. It is not a derivative design but one cultured by evolving graduation. It is a hand-made product of distinctive line and proportion, conjuring past times but supported by modern technology. It becomes desirable because, in being true to itself, it seeks not to deceive. Indeed, deception is unnecessary to it.
Halsbury’s Laws of England. A remarkable legal encyclopaedia which, though now also available digitally, is seen and recognised as the definitive statement of English law and is designed to assist all lawyers to answer any question which may, as a consequence of their business, be presented to them by a client. This legal work does not claim to be the authority on any topic – for which other works are available – but delivers fundamental reliability and clarity when a lawyer needs direction to respond promptly. It is, as a consequence, cited in courts up and down the land.
The Oxford English Dictionary. There are dictionaries and there is the OED. Defined as “the definitive record of the English language” it is the gatekeeper over accepted language and use and, as a consequence of its reputation, is seen as almost eponymous. The quality and academic rigour which lies behind the brand is a statement in itself of the reliability which the consumer can expect through delivery.
It is observed that none of these items feels it necessary to emit siren songs in the airwaves of our perception. Their chosen method of defining their reach lies in the statement of their substance. This, it is argued, is what lies behind the strongest products and services today and which we, as producers, need to emulate.
A dangerous and futile task in a world obsessed by immediacy and making a quick profit? No. It can be seen that if it is so that we as businesses need to persuade by dubious advocacy rather than demonstrate by evident truth then we can see that our businesses are ephemeral at best or in decline at worst. Inner truth, like perceived beauty, will always be in the eye of the beholder and we each and every one of us judges by what we see to be true rather than what others tell us is fact.
We must make of ourselves strong things if we are to last the course and project our values into the future. And be better men and women as a consequence.
Let’s look at Amazon – a classic case where choice creates a model but where choice, by nature of its subsequent overwhelming nature, serves to commoditise value. Once value is commoditised, it can therefore be argued, choice ceases to exist. In a grey cloud, despite environmental analysis and empirical proof that it exists, no-one can see the water. Yet Amazon, a big puff of knowledge in a cloud of unknowing, still asserts a credible position in the consumer’s mind: good products, low prices, fast delivery.
The Amazon phenomenon
Amazon is a noted success story in digital economics. It has created an interface where service and delivery, combined with apparent low price, have engendered considerable consumer attraction and made it loyal. Who today does not shop on Amazon? Publishers themselves have become so terrified of this phenomenon that many have abandoned all sense of brand ownership and have either: constructed their own e-commerce platforms to tie in with Amazon; have re-routed their web sales to Amazon; or they have put their head in the sands. You can lead a horse to water but if Amazon’s tastes better…
The Amazon method
A singular conceit of the Amazon story is that it gives customers what they want at a price apparently guaranteed to be lower than elsewhere. Amazon has come to resemble the evergreen ivy – symbiotically thriving off the marketing initiatives of others to provide sales to consumers. Publishers market their products, the customers buy elsewhere. On Amazon.
Some producers – and publishers in particular – have attempted to conclude that Amazon can be fought by offering a lower online price. This curiously blunt response is inefficient: if publishers lowered their prices, consumers would flock to them – right? Wrong. This is the power of brand. Amazon has fought for the space in the battle ground of perception and has won handsomely, it seems.
Amazon has now created a machine and a brand so powerful that perception lies in the mind of consumers far bolder than individual brands themselves. “Want a Penguin book? Buy it off Amazon.” How can publishers survive when they have, in terms of brand apparently, ceased to exist?
The Amazon pricing myth.
If we study Amazon carefully we can observe that, as sales of a given product increase, so algorithmically the price of that product goes down. The machine appears to be designed to respond to products which sell well – allowing Amazon to manipulate its generous publisher discounts and to deliver margin by volume transaction.
By contrast, products which do not sell well are priced with minimal discount: Amazon deems, logically, that low volume transaction requires higher margin. It can be observed therefore that lower prices are not a function of generosity but of trend. Volume has rarely proven to be a route to margin save when driven by sudden and consistent demand.
The Amazon problem for publishers
How can publishers survive in an environment when already in excess of 50% of the retail price of a book may have been surrendered to Amazon in terms of “trade discount”? How can they survive when a significant proportion of the remaining 50% is spent on marketing and promoting the book in the first instance? How can the already slender pocket price be managed so that publishers retain enough to stay in business and promote new books, e-books and other products?
What makes a book desirable is one of the great publishing conundrums. As Philip Kogan, chairman of business publisher Kogan Page, once wryly observed “if you can write me a book that will sell then I will publish it”. The onus is on publishing staff therefore to be commercial rather than functionary. Yet many fall into the latter category. Many publishers and their staff have ceased to propagate consistent imagination; complacency has overtaken desire; professional pride has taken second place to “a job in publishing”.
It can be observed that if publishers are no longer imaginative in output, and if Amazon as a tool offers little but a vast lake of literature ill-defined beyond digital categorisation, then consumers will become weary. Choice becomes a chore, not the outcome of selective enquiry. In this world, even the brightest pearls remain hidden in the encrusted oyster shell of publisher and retailer ennui.
How Amazon fights against itself and its suppliers do likewise
If we re-cap: Amazon owns a significant portion of the digital retail space. It owns a significant chunk of margin. It benefits from publisher marketing spend. Amazon’s function to a publisher is to clear stock in sufficient volume so as to render the initiative worthwhile. Yet in offering so much choice in one brand space, Amazon also serves to negate its own success by diverting attention from product assessment in favour of salient “best-sellers”.
The publisher too does not help itself. We have also observed that significant rafts of publisher output is uninspired as a consequence of a publisher’s commercial imperative, which is to say the production of enough books in a year to deliver an overall margin at the end of it. The demand for revenue leads inexorably to the disintegration of quality unless the creation of quality is placed at the centre of publishing operation.
It is also an inherent problem with publishers in that they are unable to define the value behind their books and load them into the shop window of Amazon in the hope of passing trade. Reading many descriptions of books on Amazon is akin to visiting an art exhibition in a village hall: mediocre quality aspiring to be seen as great. Marketers and copywriters are woefully ill-equipped to do the fundamental job needed in today’s online retail world: to describe the essence of a book in order to engender its successful purchase.
It can also be observed that any search of Amazon may well yield a raft of entries for the same product. The current edition. Old editions. Other retailers selling the same edition. Entries with the book jacket showing. Entries without an image. Out-of-print editions from second-hand stalls. At the same time, Amazon is prepared to help the publisher but only, it appears, if the publisher is prepared to pay – for example, to appear in a promotional email to Amazon customers. More pocket price given away in the hope of further sales. Through Amazon. At 50% discount or whatever.
Amazon today, therefore, is often now a tool offering a shop window for products which are not attractively wrapped and neither are they inherently visible. In Amazon’s shop window, Tiny Tim would never see the toys he wishes his parents could buy for him. There are too many books, too poorly described.
Amazon, ultimately, is not helping itself. And publishers are not helping themselves – or Amazon – either. Which probably accounts for the fact that, even for Amazon, its book retailing margins are barely more impressive than those of the publishers themselves.
A way forward?
In creating a tool designed fundamentally to service volume sales of attractive items, Amazon in many ways has created a platform where significant potential is lost. By the same token, Publishers still remain unable to define why any reader should choose its products over those of another publishing company. Price and value once again fall away on the altar of doing the easiest things as quickly as possible.
This article argues therefore that a better model for Amazon be created where retailer and producer combine to create a platform of informed choice. Amazon should insist on certain descriptive and marketing standards for what it sells and publishers ought to know what it is they are selling by being more understanding of the value inherent in their product range. Amazon should refuse multiple entries of the same title and should not permit product entries deficient of key elements such as book jacket design, contents listings and other judgement criteria. Publishers ought, too, to create books of real quality.
In such an environment, consumer choice and product visibility become easier, volume-based products will continue to sell well and lower-volume items will be more accessible to retail at acceptable margins. But such a development is unlikely in the short term. Amazon has no financial need to change and publishers in response will continue to tread water. The consequence of which is the continuation of the same problem which has dogged publishers and booksellers for years: the idle pursuit of an acceptable level of income irrespective of the value surrendered through laziness and intellectual incapability.
In the meantime, the consumer remains confused, unable to make informed choices and the publishing and retail industry – Amazon included – will continue significantly to perform below their real potential.
Today, marketing has reached such levels of sophistication that it has the potential, by its obsession with technique, to negate the very intent of its ambition – the apparent persuasion of the many into the belief that they are the few. It is argued here that brands which try to engender a personality beyond the experience of their tangibility are the authors of their own disaster. Indeed, the commoditisation by behavioural categorisation will be the death of sophistication and of human ambition.
Let us reflect for a moment on the words of the former UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, whose funeral is today. She argued: “To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies. So it is something which no one believes and to which no one objects“. She was discussing political consensus; here it is suggested that a consensus of message by computerised demographic satisfaction leads to the same end. A failure of credibility.
From cars to shopping, companies today have – like politics – developed a fear of their own shadows as they consensus seek. Generic designs, inoffensive logos, perfect function and form have risen as protective shields for brands worldwide. The avoidance of failure and the nuanced presentation of PR and crisis communication have become the order of the day. imperfection, it seems, is unacceptable to large corporations. But lest we forget, Tess of the d’Urbervilles was made exquisite in her face by that very slight imperfection which rendered knees to melt in Dorset fields a century or more ago.
In trying to appeal to the many, today’s brands lose their appeal to the few who, in their orignal interest, created the very origins of the brand itself. Brands lose, in the search for volume, a unique identity which created them. If we compare a Jaguar E-Type to a modern Jaguar, we can observe how one man’s vision for flair (Sir William Lyons) and patriotism has now become a bland demographically-designed product for global reach. In the E-Type, the “ugly curve” of British design which rendered it in all contrariness exquisitely beautiful, has now been abandoned to vulgar blandness of the “global car” in the F-Type. Yes, the F-Type is technically much better but how is it different to an Aston Martin or even a Japanese sports car?
We can see that a company has lost its vision when, in the nomenclature of its product range, it seeks to imbue the future with the laurel wreaths of the past. By the same token, companies which try to disguise what they are behind the cleverness of irrelevant message – or which try to assert something which cannot be proven – are also doomed to fail. We recall well the idea that Rover cars were to be the “British BMW”. This indeed, it is argued, is a fundamental reason why politics itself is so discredited – the people demand substance and vision but the politicians dole out disguise. As do marketers. Supermarkets too are no different. We only need to enter a Tesco store to be confronted by the odious classification of day-to-day living into lifestyle choices disguised or enhanced often, it seems, by a neologistic creativity of profound cultural depravity. Can we really claim to live in a world – can we enjoy such a world – where “snacking” is apparently a quotidian pursuit of us all? Do we really believe the horrific monstrosity of Tesco’s claim: “helping you spend less every day“? Not forgetting of course the vile deception of “every little helps” which, when matched to the unfathomable pricing differences of similar products on the same shelf, leaves only anger in the belly of those who dare to consider it?
Today, the discerning customer shuns the average. It is said, for example, that some people only shop in Waitrose because they cannot bear to be among the demographic attracted by Tesco. Of course, many of these leading companies are impressively successful but the cracks are appearing in brands built by conceit. Today, for example, it is revealed that Tesco’s attempt to commoditise the USA with its cheesily (and perhaps patronisingly) branded “Fresh and Easy” has ended in failure and the company has reported a sharp fall in sales. Rover closed long ago.
And then of course comes the tyranny of the desperation brands: payday loans and gambling websites. The depiction of these businesses as some how as acceptable as walking the dog or going to church is one of the most heinous marketing crimes of the modern age. In making something with great potential dangers (particularly to the vulnerable) as appearing inherently safe, marketers have sold their souls to the devil.
It is of course legitimate to argue that businesses must shape themselves to their target market and, in so doing, to exploit that market to their own – and their investors’ – satisfaction. We cannot, in the pursuit of honesty, debate the need for commercial valediction. But we can argue for a statement of delivery beyond that of demographic categorisation.
In seeking to classify purchasers as target markets, companies shape consumers as pawns without thought or direction – modelling them through loyalty schemes to behave in a certain fashion. From modern housing estates to motorway service stations, the satisfaction of a general demand over an aesthetic imperative will only ever create a weakness in ambition and an uncertainty in what is truly possible.
Companies, individuals and marketers owe it to their customers to highlight a vision for the future and not merely deliver the satisfaction of a perceived demographic imperative. It is argued indeed that in creating target audiences, companies deprive us all of a future. Conversely, by responding to market demand, they are more likely to shine a torch into what is otherwise a dark cave of human ennui.
So to engage the minds of consumers, companies need to have a vision with which people can identify without being patronised. Desire is created by a demonstrable passion shining golden aloft and not by the clothing of the bland in a carapace of nylon. Demand is driven by shared dreams and not by the satisfaction of the day-to-day. If we as marketers surrender human interaction, cultural aesthetic and the art of the possible – and sacrifice these values on the altar of transaction – then all we shall ever have is diminishing congregation in the church of commerce.
So it is that we recall these words: to thine own self be true. But if in thyself thou art but paste, then a diamond thou shalt never be. Humanity shines through in the best of us – and we distort the pleasure of our intercourse and ambition at our peril.