Snapchat, black boxes, struggling artists and a Nobel Prize in Economics – On the future of modern advertising (2/2)

Digital, Marketing, Technology 2017-04-04

Last week, I outlined the rapidly changing features of the marketing landscape. We live in an era where we have all the information we could ever want on tap, and with people’s attention ever more difficult to acquire, modern marketing just isn’t keeping pace. The ‘content orientated’ approach has failed to remedy the general apathy towards marketing, except in certain cases that we will explore further in this article. If you haven’t read part 1, you can check it out here.

I stated previously that people inherently associate adverts and marketing with just ‘noise’, and that a lack of authenticity prevents people from engaging with the vast majority of the messaging out there. Why do I feel authenticity is important? Well, let’s look at some of the success stories out there, identify what they have in common, break down those ideas and suggest how you can apply them to your business.

How Boeing made a billion dollars selling planes to ordinary people

Source : Boeing (2011)

Source : Boeing (2011)

The aviation industry is one of incremental improvements and a relentless dedication to efficiency. As an example, 10 kilos saved on slightly thinner rivets made possible by material advances can amount to tens of thousands of pounds saved in fuel costs over the lifetime of a plane. This is the kind of information that carriers, the companies who buy aircraft from the manufacturers, want to hear about. For the last few decades, this is where the vast amount of messaging has been directed. This means that, save for aircraft that are particularly ‘iconic’ like the 747 Jumbo, A380 and the Concorde (which also happens to be the least profitable for both airliners and manufacturers), ordinary consumers simply are unaware about the differences between the myriad of other models out there. Unless you’re a plane geek, could you tell the difference between a 777 and an a350? Why would you even need to?

In the run-up to the launch of their newest 787 aircraft, Boeing tried something different. They put a concerted effort into a commercial awareness campaign pitched directly at the customers of airliners. Their new machine was not visually distinctive or physically impressive, so it had very little appeal in the way the aforementioned iconic planes did. Instead, they pressed the tangible benefits of travelling on their aircraft to consumers, they invited countless documentaries and news into their factories to explain their manufacturing processes, and they branded the machine the ever-so-slightly cheesy ‘Dreamliner’. They gave this huge B2B proposition a decidedly B2C face. This campaign was extremely successful, and pretty soon customers began inquiring with their favourite carriers about when they could fly in this new machine.

What Boeing had recognised is that awareness is just as important as directly appealing to the people who make the purchasing decisions. Decision makers in a B2B setting are still human, and the impact your brand has on a much wider scope of people can influence them in a very positive way. If you can sell the idea and engage a broader variety of people who aren’t even involved in the more mundane B2B calculations that go into the final purchasing decision, then you will appear all the more authentic. Not only does it convey enthusiasm for your product and forces you to articulate its benefits in creative ways, but if successful it will build a mythos. Getting your name out into the public consciousness pays itself off in spades when the person you are pitching to has already heard of you before you walk through the door.

Make art, not ads. Inform, don’t sell.

One of the key reasons why Boeing was so successful in this endeavour is because most of the marketing pitched at the public was not aimed at selling. There was no sense that it was KPI driven material, designed with financial performance in mind, but instead created as if the content itself had intrinsic value. In other words, much of what Boeing did was more like art than advertising.

One of the reasons why people are so turned off by typical advertising is because many talented marketers are not thinking like their clientele. They are under pressure to generate a high ROI, which has led to a significant impact, in ways both subtle and not-so-subtle, on their work. As we explored in the previous blog, people don’t engage with abstractions and statistics, they engage with a story and creative messaging, both of which appear completely inauthentic if they are done with transparent and negative associations of ‘the sale’. The experience of an ad or marketing message from the perspective of the customer is primarily an aesthetic one. If you want to create a positive association with your content, you must stop thinking in terms of ads and start thinking in terms of art and aesthetics. Capture the imagination of your audience.

The rise of influencers, many of whom are people who have gathered a large following from simply producing content online for their viewers, demonstrates that there are far better ways to create a compelling narrative than what most of the industry is currently capable of. Take for example a content creator like Linus Tech Tips, a tech advice channel that spends half the time producing paid for, sponsored ad spots. What companies like Intel have realised is that working with these types of people can pay significant dividends, and just by sponsoring whatever is produced, they earn very positive, credible exposure. The next step is to move from simply sponsoring and buying influencers, to becoming one yourself.

The key is to allow creatives, whether they be in-house or influencers (who will often not work without), significant creative freedom and distance from business metrics like ROI. This is vitally important because it makes it more likely that the resulting content feels independent, intrinsically valuable, and most importantly, authentic.

The curious case of Denny’s Diner


Denny’s has about 1500 locations across the US and it boasts a follower count of 374,000. Burger King conversely has about 7000 locations and has 1.5 million followers. With that in mind, note the significantly diverging engagement figures of Denny’s vs the much larger Burger King. With a fifth of the followers, Denny’s regularly gets over 10 times the engagement. What’s more is that they do not pay Twitter to place their tweets in others’ timelines (like Burger King does for its promotions), instead they rely on the strength of their content and word of mouth. Their social media marketing is so strong that other people will actively spread it for them, and although most of what they produce is related to their business (to great comedic effect I might add), it never pushes the sell. It comes across as genuine and authentic, not crafted in a corporate environment that most people just can’t, or don’t, want to identify with.

So humour is a tool that one particular consumer-orientated company is using, what could a large B2B firm possibly learn from something like that? The broader point of the Denny’s example is that intrinsically valuable content is useful for building a broad base of engagement. This will then have a positive influence on your core business through heightened awareness and a more pervasive narrative. Even if your product is not something that might be considered conventionally ‘sexy’ like a jetliner, there are alternative ways for these types of companies to still get their faces out there. Doing things like sponsoring competitions, particularly at the secondary and tertiary education level, will generate important name recognition in the years to come. Creating high quality content which explains the innovation and relevance of what you do, and delves into the various applications it has, will generate powerful engagement if done correctly. Just look at a company like Apple go into exhaustive detail about its anodisation process. Most people have a reason for why they do what they do, chances are good that you fell in love with the field at some point. There is always a story to tell, you just need to find the right way to tell it.

Build yourself a black box

If you’ve ever been on a commercial aircraft, maybe even the previously mentioned Boeing Dreamliner, you’ll know that your tray table must be stowed and your seat upright for takeoff and landing. You have to watch the same safety video every time and, if you’re a frequent flier, you probably could operate one of those weird yellow oxygen masks in the dark. That said, each and every one of those routine operations has been borne out of an ingrained sense of learning in the aviation industry. Every safety procedure is there because of a previous failure or accident. This is because everything is recorded and measured, in the form of a piece of crash-proof hardware called the ‘black box’.

In his book ‘Black Box Thinking’, the author Matthew Syed goes into deep detail about how the practices of the aviation industry are relevant to almost every field. He argues that to think in ‘black box’ terms is to meticulously record and learn, to set up ‘feedback loops’ where the impact of each decision can be measured and future actions can be modified by the resultant learning. In marketing, this means heavily utilising analytics to ensure your goals are reached, but also by refining creative processes. This might seem implicitly contradictory to my previous statements about the need for creativity and breaking free from the constraints imposed on authentic messaging by business metrics, but here this is not the case. What I am arguing is that the goals of the messaging must be different from purely business metrics and not that all metrics are worthless. We are able to appreciate how good the likes of Denny’s and Boeing’s efforts are in part because we are able to measure their success. We are just using more than straightforward KPIs as a metric.

In practice, this strategy is about allowing for explosive outbursts of creativity in your marketing and messaging. After this, you gradually sharpen and refine them into a honed representation of your brand or product. It’s about establishing a solid feedback mechanism so you aren’t just wandering in the dark with your ideas, but using a variety of performance metrics to measure their impact. Crucially, this cannot happen at the cost of the ‘human touch’ that makes something relatable or engaging.

Instituting a culture of creativity

Creativity, or more specifically originality, is a difficult thing. It is a function of many things; the right environment, challenging work, an emphasis on approaching problems differently, and everybody needing slightly different stimuli in order to achieve their best output. The key to generating compelling, authentic content is to build a culture and ethos that actively values original thinking. What gets people excited to go to work in the morning is not the prospect of their pay cheque, but an overarching goal. Whether it be Steve Jobs proclaiming he wants to ‘put a ding in the universe’, or Skype ‘disrupting through innovation’. This just isn’t about creating a meaningful product of service, instead it is part of the direction for the company as a whole, including marketing and advertising. Ensuring you don’t define this purpose from the top down is also the key to some of the biggest success stories of the 21st century. By allowing this purpose to be shared and contributed to by everyone is vital to establishing a cohesive culture.

There are concrete, solid changes you can make to encourage this type of thinking. One company, Atlassian, gives their employees one day at the end of each month to work on anything they wanted to, with anyone they wanted and anywhere they wanted, with the only rule being that they show the company what they did at the end of the day in a party-like atmosphere. What they discovered is that more software bugs were fixed in that one day than in an entire month. This is not something to be reserved for creatives either, everyone has probably had an idea about how they might improve their work or some other aspect of the company, but has not had the opportunity to try. Even if they don’t succeed, they tried and learned something, which is valuable experience. There are countless more examples of this type of practice bringing in great results.

Another important aspect of creativity is conflict. Creativity flourishes when it is given parameters to work with and around. For example, research shows that mind-mapping is a wholly inadequate way of finding solutions to problems as a group because of the social biases in the workplace tend to compel people to agree with one another and not challenge assumptions. Instead, one of the most effective methods is to allow people to bring their solutions to the table, instruct the group to explicitly find problems with the solution, and then work together to fix them.

Doing this right takes a lot of institutional learning and experience, and will not necessarily yield results right away; building a culture takes time. But done correctly, your content marketing will be authentic enough to be appreciated as intrinsically valuable. This translates into a positive public narrative about your company, which will ensure that your customers, whether they be consumers or other businesses, will want to buy your products or work with you.

Thanks for reading. What are your thoughts? Let me know at @Notchcom