Let’s get ethical

I recently came across an awards book from 1997. With every ad, the creatives seemed to say: look what bad boys we are! 20 years later, the message in Cannes is the opposite: look what good boys we are! Why this remarkable change?

Critics say advertising brainwashes people into buying too many expensive luxuries. If only clients had this much faith in the power of ads! In reality, agencies struggle to make one ketchup brand slightly more popular than the others. And expensive Veblen goods are usually not advertised by agencies. But everyone’s entitled to their opinion. No problem.

Unless this is your opinion and you work in advertising. Then you’ll have to invent a creative story to justify your inconsistency. Of course, you can trust advertising people to do just that. The result is advertising that doesn’t sell a product, but an idea. The idea is that advertising makes the world better. And the target audience is the ad industry itself.

In a recent column, Tom de Bruyne writes: “Can the creativity we develop in the marketing communications industry, in the end lead to a better world? I think we are fooling ourselves and this shows we’re completely blind to what we do.” He asks if instead of creative idealists, we’re not (in the words of comedian Bill Hicks) ‘Satan’s little helpers’.

I propose a third way of looking at it. Lawyers defend the innocent and guilty. Doctors cure babies and gangsters. I’ve yet to meet a cab driver who only takes good people to the airport*. From accountants to architects and dentists, society finds it perfectly acceptable that professionals work for whoever hires them. Why should advertising be any different?

Maybe it’s the art school background of many of today’s creative directors. They were trained to make the mindless masses Stop and Think. Which also explains why their ads rarely make people Go and Do. And maybe we have lost our working class roots. Some privileged ad school grads find ‘just’ working for a living distasteful. (Gee, I wonder why so little of their advertising resonates with regular people!)

Don’t get me wrong. Creativity can do good. Brilliant creative people invented an incubator that can be fixed in any African auto repair shop. There’s also a creative hero who makes free prostheses for children. If that’s you, I salute you. But most of us are simply professionals for hire. Not the good guys in any story, not the bad guys either. Probably not even a major character, if we’re honest. But we get to make a living by being creative and figuring out what makes people tick. And that’s more than good enough for me.

* Then again, he wouldn’t take an evil mind manipulator like me!

This Is Your Brain On Brands

A creative director I used to work with, often asked one question in reviews. “What’s the role of the brand?” It’s a great question. And also one I’ve been asking myself as I learn more and more about behavioural economics.

In advertising, the brand has long been a holy cow. No matter how disruptive or forward-thinking an agency is, brands are the one thing thou shalt not disrupt. Kevin Roberts said his Lovemarks concept was about what comes after brands. And then it turned out it was just a new word for, well, brands.

I’ve worked for some of the most powerful brands in the world, from Heineken to Heinz, M&M’s and Coca-Cola. These are brands people will pay to wear on a t-shirt. Should any of these brands be terminated, there will be angry protests. This is close to magic.

Meh or magic?

I’ve also been in tons of marketing meetings for brands that are just below that level. Oh, the brand trees and brand keys I have seen. Rebel brands, challenger brands, heritage brands, jester brands … All with their own brand DNA & DMS, brand values, brand duties, brand equity that must be – ahem – leveraged. You get the gist.

A few years back, talk of a brand bubble first emerged. Great financial value is ascribed to brands. What if they turn out to be overvalued? What if most of them don’t really impact results? What if new ways of shopping render brands redundant? A stock market crash and global recession might follow.

Certainly, many agencies would be out of business overnight. Because agencies still treat brands as the solution to everything. Want to succeed in business? Either be an iconic brand, or hire an agency that can help you become one. Sales targets not being met? Just reposition the brand – again. Loyalty dropping? As Dave Trott said: ‘the answer’s brand. What was the question?’

The A-brand chicken or the A-brand egg?

All this is built on a few observations and assumptions. One: a few truly iconic brands make lots of money. It may or may not be a coincidence that these companies also make innovative, user friendly products (Apple) or have stellar distribution (Coke). What came first, the brand or the excellence in other marketing areas? New power brands like Uber, Instagram and AirBnB have reached iconic status with little to no classic branding.

Two: people view your brand as a person. With a personality, a voice, a character. If they like your brand, they will buy your product. Right or wrong? A little bit of both. Research shows that our brains do react strongly to brands we love. Parts of the brain associated with making quick decisions light up on MRI when people are shown their favourite brands.

Don’t order champagne just yet though, traditional agencies. Because this only happens for number one favourite brands. Even well known, trusted second place brands are near-useless in this respect. These brands mainly fulfil another, more prosaic function. This has to do with defensive decision making or satisficing.

Brands: less likely to be terrible

Consumers often choose not the best product, but a product that’s unlikely to be terrible. A name brand signals that a big company has invested lots of money in its reputation. This makes them unlikely to risk poisoning you and blowing it all. Which explains why many consumers have a repertoire of brands within a category rather than one brand they’re loyal to. And as retailers become trusted A-brands themselves, this function loses strength.

Then there’s the brand’s role in alleviating the pain of paying. If we know, like and trust a brand, our brains can handle a higher price. Which is great for margins. In this sense, the brand literally acts like a placebo! However, scientists have not found any proof that our brains actually view brands as persons with personality traits, character etc. To the brain, a brand is a product, not a living being. Which makes all the talk of optimistic and courageous brand personalities seem a little silly.

Part of the solution, no longer ‘the’ solution

Distinctive brand properties still aid memory. They still draw attention. Brands still alleviate the pain of paying. And strong brands still influence subconscious decisions.  In terms of BJ Fogg’s B=MAT model, brands are part of the M of motivation. Which means both marketers and creatives need to broaden their thinking. And start treating brands not as the whole solution, but as one element in a larger mix. That is the role of the brand today.






Hey marketer, let’s flip your funnel

Your brand tree was perfect, your content strategy rocked and you micro-influenced the hell out of Instagram. But you’re just not beating the competition. What’s going wrong? Chances are, you’ve got your thinking upside-down.

Question: what’s wrong with this picture?



Fig. 1 ah, the good old funnel.





Answer: nothing. And everything. This is just one example of the many funnel models. They all start with something like Reach, Attract or Awareness. They all end in a tiny triangle for sales or conversion.

As a media or direct marketing model, it’s fine. Send 100 people sales letters, and maybe 5 will buy something. Broad up top, narrow at the bottom. Makes sense.

Here’s the problem. This inverted pyramid is also an accurate reflection of many marketers’ process.

You spend most of your time, effort and money at the top. Building awareness, generating interest. Strategy meetings, brand positioning sessions, thematic campaign pitches. Relatively little attention is given to the end. You know, where the ROI is supposed to be.

The thinking: if you get the top right, great sales results should follow automatically. Ah, but  they don’t, do they? Now you’ve spent a lot of resources changing minds. But you’re not changing behaviour.

As the saying goes, a marathon is won in the last mile. More often, that’s where it’s lost. Most shopping decisions are made in-store. In that very small triangle at the bottom. But wait – wasn’t the end of the funnel the purpose of the whole thing?



Fig. 2

Let me flip that funnel for you.





As Covey said: start with the end in mind. If you plan a trip, you start with the destination and work back from there. Now apply that logic to your marketing strategy. Start your thinking with the first moment of truth, where people pick and buy your product. Or not.

What influences their behaviour? Habits? Laziness? Are they overwhelmed by choice? Swayed by what others seem to prefer? Are they looking for the very best? Or do they choose defensively, picking whatever feels least risky?

Insights and models from behavioural economics, combined with some research will answer those questions. And once we know, we can work our way up. And build a complete marketing strategy that delivers results.

Or maybe we can just solve the problem with some smart, cheap nudges at the point of purchase. Of course, you won’t get THAT advice from agencies specialized in content platforms or TV commercials.

Small adjustments in the amount of choice and the way it is presented have been known to have a major impact on sales. As have smart ways to present prices. In other words: You can change behaviour without changing minds first.

Then a change in brand perception can follow from that. It often will. Humans tend to act irrationally, on impulse. And then post-rationalize their choices. It’s human behaviour.

It’s also very human to hold on to habits and ways of working that have grown outdated. If you want better results though, it may be time to start by changing your own behaviour.







Well played, National Lottery

I didn’t come up with this, I just found it on Twitter. But I wish I had. See, insights from behavioural economics are often used to optimize. To fine-tune the details. That’s ok. But I love BIG creative ideas built on biases and heuristics. This campaign combines a bunch of them.

First off, I’m reminded of Robert Cialdini’s famous hotel towel experiments. Other people, people like you, in the same spot as you, have done this. The persuasive power of similarity and social proof at work.

Then there’s the survivorship bias. We focus on the 54 times a lottery ticket in this area yielded a big prize. And pay no mind to the thousands if not millions of losing lottery tickets sold in the area through the years.

And then of course, there’s randomness versus luck. We humans don’t get probability and randomness at a deep level. We feel 54 millionaires in one area can’t be a coincidence. Even though it is.

And to top it all off, there’s a witty line. Adding that bit of creative juice that makes the ad distinctive and likeable.

Well played, National Lottery. Well played.