A reply to Jonathan Mildenhall


You asked me to point you in a better direction.  Here is my attempt.

It is all about using creativity in a way specifically adapted to work in the social digital space, rather than taking what used to work in the traditional mass media space and adapting it in order to try and keep it afloat.

The ‘old’ media and marketing was defined by the fact that distributing content was expensive.  Our creative approach was therefore reductive – reduce things down to concise messages, images, campaigns and then put this single thing in front of as much of our audience as possible, as frequently as possible.  This is what creative directors were taught to do.  But social media, to borrow a phrase from Clay Shirky, is “ubiquitous, global and cheap”.  Thus everyone can afford to use it in a very disposable way.  It is a casual, disposable, conversational medium, not a precious broadcast medium.

As a consequence, social media is highly fragmented, distributed and specific.  Unlike traditional media, it is not good at putting single messages in front of lots of people.  However, it is very good at reaching the right people at the right time – ‘right’ in this instance being defined not by who people are (traditional segmentation and targeting) but by what they are doing (social segmentation).  As I am fond of saying – there are only ten people critical to your business and social media can help you find them.

It also means that marketing has to shift from being reductive, to being narrative – storytelling as you rightly identify – because stories can spread conversationally in a way that messages can’t (as the game of Chinese Whispers illustrates).  However, this isn’t just about adopting the process of storytelling, it is about having a story.  Brands have to encode themselves as a story, not a series of propositions, and brands’ activities have to validate their story, not simply illustrate it (or for that matter simply repeat consumers’ own illustrations).

Most brands’ attempts to harness the power of social media fail to grasp how and why the social digital space is different and they end up simply dragging their previous ‘one-to-many mass message’ approach, and associated creative techniques into the new space.  And because this approach only works when you reach a lot of people, these so-called social media campaigns almost always come down to one thing – the quest to make things viral or contagious, the search for numbers, hits, impressions, likes.  However, viral is tough.  Most of your shots at it don’t work, and even those that do are almost impossible to replicate, or they take you into a place which starts to stray too far from your brand’s story.  Viral is often not very social.  Take the much-lauded P&G Old Spice campaign.  This boiled down to lots of people talking to each other about the ad.  No-one was talking to, or about, the brand and the only way the brand had to back was by pretending to be the man in the ad.  Pretence is not social.

Still, P&G got 1.8 billion impressions – so you could say they won in the numbers game and it would be foolish to say you shouldn’t abandon the quest for contagion, but it should never be your strategy, certainly not your social strategy.  Also – take a look at Old Spice now.  Have they replicated that contagion with their latest campaigns?  No they haven’t.

Your strategy for social has to start with the assumption that you can only ever reach small numbers of people at any given time – and therefore what you do, or get, from those people has to be very different from what you do or get when you are talking to everyone.

Take a look at your Facebook page.  I checked-out 24 hours’ worth of entries and what did I find?  First – a lot of spamming, which someone was removing relatively quickly.  Second, a load of random mentions.  Were these people’s ‘stories of Coca Cola’?  Not really, they were more the sort of scraps of affection that a brand of the stature of Coca Cola would expect to accumulate, were it to give people a place to stick them.  Third, there was stuff that highlighted a much more serious level of engagement with your brand – for example, people who were so passionate about Coke they paint their vans red and put the Coca Cola logo on the side.  There were also a small group of people who had some sort of complaint.

The interesting thing was that there was no engagement from Coca Cola with any of these people – nothing coming back – except a response to some of the complaints.  Now I know the premise of the Facebook page, reflecting its history, is the idea of it belonging to your fans.  It is not designed as a place you want to use to broadcast to everyone, an approach I would 100% endorse.  However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t use it as a place to enghage at least some of the people who post stuff there.  What about the guy so passionate about your brand he paints his van red?  What can you do with him?  At the moment, his engagement, his passion, is left hanging in the wind.

Now in the world of mass engagement and creativity, you couldn’t do anything with these people.  Their passion simply became a badge of the brand’s success.  It was great to have them, and the objective of everything you do is to create more of them – but essentially, they represented the end of the creative story.  Critically, however nice it was to have people like this, you could never realistically expect everyone to be like them.  These people will only ever represent a tiny segment of your audience – a slice so small that no matter how much of your product they consume, this group will never move the needle on overall sales.  Which is why they have tended to be either ignored (as the man with the van was), or seen as a residual effect.

So – in Brazil, let’s say, you probably have a thousand or so people like the guy who painted his van red.  These people could drink Coke all day long and it wouldn’t move the needle on sales.  But what business problems do you have in Brazil that these people could help you crack?  I am sure there would be some.  For example, how do you identify and reward best practice in display and serving of your product out in the trade?  These people could help you with that.  This is the thing, when you are talking small numbers – you have to take things so much further.  In essence social media is about getting people, whom you don’t pay, to help you do your business better.

And what about the vast majority of consumers who are never going to paint their vans red – how do you reach them?  The answer is – you don’t (not with social media anyway).  You wait for them to ask you a question – and you make sure that all those questions get listened to and addressed.  All of them.  So that pretty soon, everyone knows that Coke is listening.  It is not about provoking the conversations you want to have and then reacting to them (provocation is not social).  It is about responding to the conversations consumers want to have with you – accepting that this can often be about pretty boring stuff.   This is creativity as applied to relationships and behaviours, not applied to stuff – content stuff, campaign stuff.  And there are very few big consumer brands in the world doing a good job of it at the moment because they are all focused on the search for contagion, and force-fitting traditional creativity into a social space.   Ikea, Tipp-Ex, Golf GTI app – all good ideas – but old fashioned, traditional mass marketing ideas.  The only one you mention in the video that was truly social, and thus likely to have any long-term, sustainable, impact on brand reputation was Twelpforce – and what were they doing?  Answering questions.

So – create the opportunity for the 0.1 per cent to help you do your business better.  And become known as the brand that listens and answers questions.  Creativity expressed in behaviours, not in things.  Sounds dull, and it is a tough ask to do it well, but that is how you earn a disproportionate share of popular respect.  Forget a share of popular culture – that is just a noisy stop-over on the way to respect when you are headed down the crowded highway of one-to-many mass marketing.  With social media you can take a much more direct route.

To use another analogy – traditional marketing was all about fireworks.  Social media is all about bonfires.  You can have a firework display alongside your bonfire – but it is never a good idea to put fireworks on your bonfire.

Hope this provides some food for thought!

One comment

  1. Pingback: Content: what content? « Richard Stacy

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