The road to somewhere

Simon Pont on what the future of branding has in common with Tony Stark and Charles Revson.

By Simon Pont

We all want to live better, richer and more complete lives. Because being all you can be leads to the highway to happiness, a smooth blacktop stretching towards that perfect sunset.

And here’s the thing: I think brands and advertising, in some small way, can help us on that road. But first, we need to drop the “advertising” label and call it something else.

You see, “to advertise,” the verb, does itself no favours. It’s defined on Dictionary.com as: To call attention to something, in a boastful or ostentatious manner. To announce or praise (a product, service, etc.) in some public medium to induce people to buy or use it.
Ostentatious. Boastful. These aren’t traits we seek in others, with a view to then make them our friends. So, advertising, by definition, is ineffective communication because it’s so unlikeable.

But let’s flip it. When advertising truly knows its audience and places a brand in the context of that audience’s needs, it ceases to be advertising “by definition” (while suddenly wielding enormous power to persuade and to create desire).

Now, using “consumer-centric messages” is nothing new. The finest Madison Avenue output of Don Draper’s day observed the truth that successful advertising must appeal to human truths and wants.

Yet, 50 years on, in a world gone digital, the “brand form” has newly evolved. Social media brands like Facebook and Twitter are successful, very simply, because they let us build on the idea of “The Me I Want to Be.” They allow us to chronicle and edit an online self that conforms to the more idealized and satisfying versions of how we see ourselves.

Media has gone from mass to personal to intimate – a thing of self-expression, social affirmation and lifestyle curation.

Digital and social media brands are potentially the most narcotic and charismatic evolution of the brand form, not because of what they say about themselves but because of what they allow their users to say. Digital brands take a back seat. Ironically, brands today become successful by letting their consumers be “boastful” and “ostentatious.” And physical brands are quickly learning from their social media successors.

Consider Nike. The brand has become a digital native in order to survive. It is no longer selling running shoes. The company is building a brand world that orbits around the consumer, in the form of Nike+, which is all about making it easier to live and express a “Just Do It” lifestyle.

Consider the ever-expanding gap between Sony and Apple. Sony still tries to sell hardware. Apple sells a “lifestyle ecosystem” that looks to provide a cooler, hipper, somehow “more fun” and more creative world for people.

Advertising has always been about selling “The Dream.” Revlon founder Charles Revson acknowledged that he manufactured cosmetics but sold hope. In accepting that many of us aspire to a life more remarkable, we’re seeing brands become more imaginative dream-weavers.

This spring, Audi adopted Marvel Comics’ “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” Tony Stark as its brand ambassador, saying the new Audi R8 was “engineered for Iron Man” – adding aspirational superherodom to its strapline, “Truth in engineering.”

Without superhero assistance but with a similar feel, Jaguar recently launched its new F-Type by asking, “How alive are you?” and telling us, “It’s your turn.”

Where mobile technology is now augmenting our lives, advertising is (more than ever) exaggerating our reality, blurring the boundaries, inviting fiction in, and (crucially) putting us in the driving seat.

We’re seeing advertising collide with a kind of hyperbole. In mathematics, “hyper” is used as a prefix to denote four or more dimensions – and advertising is encouraging a fourth dimension to take shape, where brands and consumers join in co-creation.

While “advertising” still needs a new definition, one thing is for sure – brands can help in our road to somewhere.

Happy motoring.

U.K.-based Simon Pont is the chief strategy officer at Starcom MediaVest Group, His agency career includes Saatchi & Saatchi and Naked Communications. He’s the author of The Better Mousetrap, Digital State, and a novel, Remember to Breathe. Say hello @SimonPont and Simonpont.com.