Do people really care about what marketers have to say about brands – or are they just interested in how they say it? Stuart Smith investigates where this leaves the researcher caught in the middle
Researchers are wasting their time.
Specifically, researchers involved with developing brand communications, are wasting their time.
Well, perhaps thats not strictly true. If theyre getting paid for their time, then whatever they do in it isnt wasted. Besides, its not really the fault of researchers. Theyre only following orders. Researchers are wasting their time because marketers and communications agencies are wasting their time.
Marketers and their communications agencies spend months and months — and then some more months — trapped in a continuum of struggle to work out their communication strategy. Researchers are commissioned to help develop, craft and test those strategies. But its usually a waste of time. Because strategy is overrated.
That is to say, that the traditional definition of a communication strategy aint what it used to be. Smart and successful brands are now getting it; its not what you say, its how you say it.
Power of a brands voice
Nike understood this 25 years ago. It didnt discover the power of advertising; it discovered the power of its own voice. More recently, brands like Honda and Innocent have accrued the spoils from this realisation.
There are exceptions, of course. If youve got a powder that washes whiter than white, while transforming your home into an alpine forest, then that may well be persuasive. But most clients and agencies massively overstate the power of the message to persuade be that a rational or emotional benefit, or (cue genuflection) a much-prized consumer insight.
Take the most effective communications in recent years. The last two Grand Prix winners at the IPA Effectiveness Awards were O2 and M&S. Both triumphs of how they said it. Though some will post-rationalise it otherwise. But come on guys. Be honest.
Strategy types go away into dark and dusty rooms (shhh the planners thinking) and emerge days later shouting eureka before laminating the brief, enshrining its proposition forever. Then all they have to do is slip it under a creative persons door and wait for the magic beans to grow a beanstalk to brand gold. Only, not really. Its the way you tell em that counts.
But somehow that sounds too facile. Weve been raised in a land where message is king. Its tangible, controllable and (critically for researchers) testable. Whats the key message? Who cares? Not real people, thats for sure. The other day, I heard someone saying: I love that Honda Cog advert, with all those car parts knocking into each other. What an outstanding reliability message that was.
Dont worry about that I made it up. Though it leads to another reason why we should be less what obsessed from now on.
Opportunities vs invitations
Consumers dont particularly want messages from brands, and increasingly they have the power to edit out or fast-forward through them. It cant be about opportunities to see something anymore (ooh — youre giving me an opportunity to see your message, thank you so much. Whats that you say? Four opportunities to see it? I must be the luckiest person alive).
No. It can only be the other way round — getting people to come to you. An invitation to see, perhaps. It will only be seen if its, in some sense, sufficiently engaging to be sought out. Basically — the how you say it.
Sure, theres a role for what you say (you have to say something relevant, right?). Its just that its much less important than most people think it is, so should therefore be much easier to get to. The how you say it (well) bit is much harder. And much more important in the first place.
This presents four challenges for research.
Firstly, can research be used to support this hypothesis? Or at least assess the degree to which it might be valid?
Yes it can (phew). Although its quantitative, I applaud the work done by the likes of Robert Heath, Duckfoot and others, that in different ways serve to undermine the old assumptions of how communications work. But sadly, most brand folk just dont get it yet. Is there a qualitative voice out there to join this burgeoning chorus of disapproval?
Whats a poor quallie to do?
This leads to the second challenge. Should qualitative researchers bother to care? Or choose not to listen, even? Is it only right and proper that researchers do what theyre briefed to do? If a research commissioner wants to know what their brands message should be, isnt that their prerogative? If a researcher accepts the strategy is overrated theory (I appreciate that its a big if), then is it incumbent upon them to challenge the brief? Should they say, dont waste your cash deciding between mintiest or freshest? Or is that just commercially suicidal flapdoodle?
The third challenge is how to research the how. Research is just peachy at helping develop and assess the what bit positioning statements, propositions, main message takeout and such. But, in my experience, research has concerned itself less with the more visceral, subtle and nuanced world of brand voice, engagement, emotional response, implicit associations and the creative execution of ideas. Im not blaming research, it just hasnt been asked to work as hard in those areas. But my contention is that itll increasingly need to do so.
This raises a problem. If youre researching the how, then theres not much point in doing that before its in the form its finally going to be said. There are no halfway houses, really. A few words describing the brands voice, at the centre of a brand onion, isnt going to cut it. Nor will mood boards or reels. To research how, which lives or dies by the emotional response it elicits, you need something emotionally finished (to borrow Robert Heaths expression). But if its finished, then isnt it too late to research it?
How to engage consumers
Maybe researching the how is more about helping inspire it, rather than evaluate it. Good communications still need good consumer understanding, which in turn needs good research. Brands need to find new relevant ways of engaging their consumers. This is the fourth challenge. How can research help inform new ways of speaking to consumers? Not how can research inspire what to say, but how can it inspire how to say it?
The tone of this piece is self-consciously strident. Clearly, not all researchers are wasting all their time, and not all strategy is overrated. Im just talking about communications research which is working off a traditional definition of strategy (which is most of it). Strategy is everywhere. Everything is strategic brand fit, tone, mood, language, colours, fonts, sound, music, casting, layout, design, typography, material texture, size, the media, the context, the level of quality and, oh yes, also the message.
The point is that everything communicates. Its impossible for something not to communicate. If something communicates something, then it needs to be strategically considered. Im just questioning why communicators and researchers deify the message above all those other elements, in an age when consumers are inexorably converting to message-atheism.
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, March 2007
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2007