Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Dan Plant: Creating consensus without correlation

By NDA monthly columnist Dan Plant, Executive Head of Strategy, Starcom UK

OK, so here’s a question for you. Where is a brand? Not what is a brand, not how does it work, but where is it? Where does it reside?

Late in the 20th century, the marketing industry moved from thinking that a brand only existed as a non-generic name placed on a commoditised product and that instead it represented – as David Ogilvy described it –  “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes”. It became clear that “the brand” did not reside in a brand book in the marketing department of a company. It did not reside in the minds of the wonderful creative directors developing advertising campaigns for that company.

It did not even reside in the products that the company sold to its customers. A brand’s true home – I think we all agreed – was in the mind of the consumer. Their collection of perceptions and attitudes towards your products, communications and presence in the market, were what formed the identity of the brand.

But what was also almost taken for granted was that there was still a collective “truth” about any given brand. There weren’t millions of completely different versions of the same brand based on an individual’s perceptions. Those individuals only formed those opinions as part of an overall consensus on what a brand stood for.

In fact, the only real way to have confidence in your brand perceptions as an individual is knowing that your personal brand perceptions are the same or at least similar to the consensus.

Understanding the consensus used to be easy as we all lived in the same world, were exposed to the same media, saw the same products in the same shops and heard the same conversations about it.

That simply isn’t the case anymore. A trend that started long before lockdown, but that has been dramatically accelerated recently, is that there is less and less crossover in our worlds.

Media polarisation accelerates

A recent study using IPA Touchpoints showed how polarised media consumption has become. As recently as 2015, there was 58% correlation between the media consumption behaviours of 16-34-year-old adults and those 55+. By the beginning of 2020 this had been cut by nearly two thirds to only 21%. In lockdown however, it has become even more pronounced with only 9% correlation between their media behaviours. So 91% of what 55 year olds read, watch or listen to is invisible to those under 34 and vice versa. I knew there was a trend, but didn’t realise quite how extreme it had become.

And that is just the paid for commercial media channels. That doesn’t take into account for example the impact of removing shop windows and off shelf displays in all the abandoned non-essential stores. It doesn’t take into account all the overheard brand-led conversations or observed brand behaviours that we are no longer hearing or seeing any more.

Isolation and the power of collective experience

Our isolation from each other means we simply can’t know what we are all thinking, whether it is about brands or anything really.

If we don’t know what our friends, colleagues, family, general acquaintances are being exposed to with regards to brands, how can we have any confidence in our own opinions?

I recently saw some tracking for the technology sector that was actually seeing an escalation in media spends behind their various product launches. Some of the biggest spends ever, in ever more accurately targeted media, but the overall levels of product awareness and consideration across the category were the lowest they have been for a number of years. I truly believe that brands are facing a huge challenge from theses polarised behaviours in lockdown and, without the consensus of the collective, we will always struggle to hold onto the brand equity that has been so vital to the growth of so many businesses.

I believe therefore that we need to be investing as much as possible in those collective moments. They do still exist in pockets and they are all the more valuable as a result.

As we look to the government’s roadmap for exiting lockdown, brand marketers should be looking at every opportunity to connect with groups of people, celebrating togetherness, unifying people’s experiences.

For example, I can’t wait until cinemas are open again – nothing says collective experience like the thrill of watching the latest blockbuster on the big screen – or even large sporting events with spectators. Watching on TV doesn’t feel like a collective experience when you’re watching an empty stadium.

Whatever the activity brands would be well advised to understand and celebrate true togetherness if they want “the intangible sum of their attributes” to be worth anything in the coming years.