17 Feb 2021
Barry Kessel

The Big Idea, Through a 2021 Lens

Barry Kessel
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I started in advertising in 1972. From where I sit, that gives me a real advantage in this business. I’ve worked at huge agencies and smaller ones, as an Executive Creative Director, President and CEO. I’ve played in the sandbox with every marketing discipline, but my upbringing is in direct marketing – the world of response and data. Today’s digital practice is very familiar to me – it’s real-time direct marketing on steroids.

So with all that perspective, what is today’s marketing mileau? Where are marketers focused?

Marketers are hyper-fixated on transactions – the bottom of the “funnel”.

Behaviors that are tracked in data dominate the industry’s focus: views, clicks and conversion. We now mostly measure what people do, with little attention paid to why. The art of persuasion is geared towards persuading you to click or swipe. The very definition of “brand” has shifted from an emotional attraction – preference and loyalty – to engagement. Clicks rule. How we got here and what it means for the practice of branding are worthy of a deeper look.

From the 1950’s (and even before then) up until about 2010, brands were built from the top-down. By that I mean that agencies were tasked with developing the “big idea”. Here is a question I’ve heard a thousand times in agency meetings: “What’s the big idea?” In fact, when I hear that question, I hear the voice of David Sable (Y&R/WPP) who had a gift for helping turn good work into great work with that very question. It’s code for “how do we come up with a singular galvanizing message that defines the brand to appeal to as many people as possible?” It was the holy grail of strategy and creative teams. Some good examples from the last century, many of which were put to music. If you’re old enough, you’ll recognize these. Some are still in play.

Pepsi. For those who think young.
Let Hertz put you in the driver’s seat.
Coke. It’s the real thing.
Eastern Airlines. The wings of man.
Built Ford tough.
Budweiser. The king of beers.
Wendy’s. Where’s the beef?

The big idea was the great equalizer: anybody and everybody can grasp it. Quickly.

Was this an effective strategy? Yes, because the primary channel for reaching lots of people at a low cost was broadcast television. While advertisers could play with airtimes to target demographics based on daypart and show, eventually most of America was going to get the message. Frequency counted.

Over time, a good brand promise sticks in the control panel of our brain. That “control panel”, as I call it, contains the switch that we flip every time we make a choice about what car to drive, beer to drink, hamburger to eat, person to date. Smart advertisers learned how to own that switch with the big idea. It can differentiate a brand from a competitor, highlight a brand’s main feature, or just entertain. The big idea reigned supreme in ad-land for some 50 years.

Now, the big idea is still around but it’s not what drives brand allegiance.

Brands today are increasingly built from the bottom up. With the demise of broadcast TV – cable, OTT and streaming have greatly decreased its reach – the channel of choice is the digital ecosphere of search, social, digital content and the user experience when on the brand’s site. It’s been known for a long time that experience trumps advertising in a major way. I may have seen a thousand ads for my bank, but if the site doesn’t help me easily deposit checks or transfer funds, the ads are for naught. One bad meal at a restaurant obliterates any ad. Brand experience rules and that experience today is defined on my device.

No longer does marketing need to be the great equalizer. Marketing is now about giving control to the individual to define the brand on his/her terms.

This focus on the user experience is helping build thousands of wonderful niche brands that could have never existed nationally in the analog-only world. Many of them barely rely on advertising. They deliver a brand experience that generates preference, loyalty and digital word of mouth. Brands like Strava, Knack, Huckberry, Realtor.com and Venmo are digital masters at making it easy to accomplish a task and enjoy the experience as we shop, buy a gift, move money, find a house or track our run. They don’t use mass advertising and if there is a big idea, it’s in crafting a rewarding experience.

The huge brands know this, too. Apple is the king of CX – from creating a unified digital ecosystem around content to transforming the retail experience. Amazon and Alibaba have set the bar for the online equivalent of earth’s largest department stores. We may like these firms’ products and prices, but it is the convenience and the CX that creates repeat visits, usage and loyalty. That Amazon truck outside my door is the final word for why I like my Amazon experience.

The brands that can afford it rely on both: top-down and bottom-up.  They advertise, not necessarily in low CPM broad-reach media, but using targeted, data-driven channels, online or traditional. They know that in 2021 a brand is built one user at a time.

Delight one user and you are on the path to building a brand. Then, rather than struggling to merely find users (look-alikes), let users find you. Let your customers create content. Delight every user in the experience your brand delivers across the entire customer journey. That’s today’s answer to the big idea. Or small idea, depending upon your perspective.

Continue the conversation at bkessel@havitad.com.