A new age of authenticity?

Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the Labour leadership is truly remarkable.

He only made it onto the ballot paper at all because a group of MPs, some of whom cheerfully admitted they wouldn’t actually vote for him, decided at the last minute to nominate Corbyn in order to ‘widen the debate’.

Well he certainly did that!  Even when he made it onto the ballot paper, Corbyn was still a 100/1 outsider with the bookies to win.  But then something truly remarkable happened.

He didn’t just widen the debate, he changed the entire nature of it through a willingness to speak plainly, directly and with obvious passion.  And it had a striking impact.

This isn’t just about Jeremy Corbyn though.  The same could equally be said for the likes of Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson.

Across the political spectrum we find the politicians who have most caught the public imagination in recent years are those who speak ‘plain English’ rather than politicobabble, and have a ‘man of the people’ image (albeit very carefully cultivated in at least one case).

Over the last 20 years or so, certainly since the advent of New Labour and it’s media savvy spin machine, modern political communication has become cliché-ridden and soundbite-driven; an exercise in finding ways to avoid giving a straight answer to a straight question in a ‘Westminster Bubble’ parlour game to which only a closed elite of politicians and media know the rules or are allowed to play.

To the party spin doctors this may have seemed like an exercise in great media management, but the net result has been that the language of politics has become entirely divorced from the everyday language of the people the politicians are supposed to serve.

Against this backdrop it’s no surprise that we have seen a growing disenchantment, not necessarily with politics per se – the Scottish referendum turnout, the Iraq War march, or the number of petitions doing the rounds on social media demonstrate that people still care about important issues – but with the politicians themselves.

I’m not saying that the likes of Corbyn, Farage or Johnson are better politicians than their more ‘on message’ colleagues – the relative appeal of their policies is a matter of subjective personal opinion – but they have each found a way to connect directly with the public, which in turn gives them a more powerful platform from which to persuade people to their point of view.

Enemy isn't conservatism

So given we have seen the power of authentic communication in politics are there any lessons for marketers in all of this, or is the term ‘authentic marketing’ simply an oxymoron?

Is it possible to have true authenticity in a discipline where the primary objective in most cases is to maximise sales?

Certainly some people must think so.  A Google search for the term “authentic marketing” yields 6,590,000 results.

But in a cutting response to one advertiser request, director Johan Liedgren wrote “I don’t view the opportunistic call for “authenticity” as a hope for our industry, but rather as an all-time low point for a trade that is no stranger to constantly lowered ambitions for the communication between organizations and real humans”.

Liedgren authenticity

Liedgren goes on to say: “Authenticity would be a short clip of you asking the audience to buy more of your product so you can keep your job and get a bonus.”

Which brings us neatly onto the current campaign for Oasis soft drinks:

Oasis Refreshing Stuff

Maybe we really have just entered a new age of authenticity?

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What ‘Bad Jews’ can teach us about good communication

“It is my sincere belief that by being incredibly specific, one taps into something which is universal”.

Casually perusing the theatre reviews page in the Evening Standard last week I came across this great quote from playwright Joshua Harmon, taken from the programme notes for his new play, Bad Jews.

Whilst patently true, Harmon’s maxim rarely seems to be followed, particularly in the world of marketing communication.  Too much mass marketing takes a ‘one size fits none’ approach – attempting to appeal to everyone, whilst actually appealing to nobody.

Maybe it’s the desire not to offend, or the fact that too many ads are designed by committee, all the interesting rough edges having been smoothed away in endless rounds of research, but however it happens a large proportion of the work that finally sees the light of day ends up being bland, uninteresting, and – the cardinal sin for advertising – unmemorable.

Every brand wants to have a genuine dialogue with its customers, and ‘be part of the conversation’.  But most of them are too scared to talk to people on a human level, in the language ‘real’ people actually use in day-to-day conversation.

Some people (such as self-styled Ad Contrarian, Bob Hoffman) take this as a sign that people don’t want to have any form of relationship with brands.  And for the most part this is undoubtedly true.  But it isn’t necessarily so.

Mischief-making bookmaker Paddy Power is one clear exception.  It’s not for everyone, but Paddy Power always provokes a reaction, and that makes it a brand that many people want to have a conversation with, and about.

Because it is one of few brands out there that genuinely has character.  It is edgy and provocative.  Sometimes (often!) they go too far and get it wrong.

But by talking and acting like a real sports fan in the pub, they appeal to laddish young (and not so young) men who comprise a large proportion of the betting audience.  This is an amazing success story in such a commoditised and highly crowded market.

Going back a few years, the Yorkie ‘Not for Girls’ campaign was equally distinctive and controversial.  Byron Sharp uses this campaign in How Brands Grow as an example of focusing on too niche an audience, because ultimately more women ended up buying Yorkies than men.

I see Yorkie more as a triumph for distinctive brand positioning than bad targeting.  Nestle made sure to use mass media that would expose the campaign to men and women equally.  In doing so they deliberately created a strong emotional reaction amongst women, forcing them to actively appraise whether or not Yorkie was for them.

Of course the increasing ability to use data to deliver personalised behavioural marketing should theoretically put an end to this issue of irrelevant and uninteresting advertising.  We know so much about who people are, where they go and what they do that we have the ability to always be incredibly specific with our marketing communication.

The problem is that for the most part creativity doesn’t seem to have kept pace with technology where personalised marketing is concerned.

‘Hey, look at this really cool ad that’s obviously been created just for me’, said nobody, ever.

‘How do they know which websites I’ve been on, and why do they now keep bombarding me with ads for things I looked at once but didn’t want to buy?’ say lots of people every day.

Having lots of data at our disposal is a wonderful gift.  But with great data comes great responsibility.

Obviously we have a duty to our clients to drive cost-efficient sales in the short term, if that is the task at hand.

But we also have a duty to the consumer, to ensure we use what we know about them to deliver interesting, relevant and timely communication in a way they will genuinely value.  And we haven’t cracked that part yet.

For the billions of marketing dollars that are spent every year, most people wouldn’t care if the vast majority of brands ceased to exist.

Unfortunately it seems we know everything about everyone, except how to make them care about us.

We’re smart people.  We can change this.  But only if we make data and content work hand in hand, rather than seeing them as discrete choices.