Monday, October 27, 2008
Come On, Show Me: Adaptive Brand Personality In Times of Change
By Kendall Allen "Personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures." -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Great Gatsby"
I was reminded this quote midstream in my current read, "All Consuming Images," by Stuart Ewen, as he referenced it to lead a chapter. In this work, Ewen examines the politics of style in contemporary culture: representation and value; the nuanced relationship between art and commerce; style as business device. The facets and paths of his exploration are many, and I will be coming back to them, over time. I'm quite taken with where the read has taken me so far. This revisited quotation got to me, on the origins and intent of successful personality. The actual quote begins with "If" and continues on, making it even more appropriate to ponder.
Is Personality Intentional? Is it Marketing?
Coincidentally, given my work and my circles, I've been engaged in a live conversation lately on brand personality. Just recently, in another forum, I wrote a bit on how we can derail as we go from brainstorm, to driving insight, to concept, to outward expression of brand personality -- taking a look at those ads that hurl the brand personality off-center when they are just so, well, whacked. You question the intention at a very gut level when you see this bad, bad stuff. My favorite example this year has been the bizarre Chevy Traverse spot, featuring a manly man in a languid saunter ironing his lady's dress and scrubbing the toilet. Huh?
In a way, the Gatsby summation of personality suggests that it is an operational pursuit in which you actively create an identity that becomes your personality. But, gestures are not accidents. And, "success" implies purpose. We all know that actions speak louder than words, but if the actions are intentionally geared toward creating personality -- it's not all that straightforward. Your personality is some live blend of presence, impulse, intent, action and continuum. In this version, personality does sound like marketing -- and that's a bit depressing.
Let's Take This to Marketing
As we draft and evoke brand personality as marketers and creatives, we are in fact purposefully delivering that personality through media, touchpoints, and visual and experiential constructs. There is no doubt that gesture is involved in fostering and telegraphing brand personality. The inflections of a solid brand personality resonate every time, and the impact is cumulative -- a stream of identification connects. Most people like to be shown, not told, though telling helps us along.
What About Adaptability?
No matter how high we uphold the spirit of "show me -- don't tell me," life and advertising are more complicated than that. No matter how pervasive a personality, times of change call for adaptation, especially in certain sectors. And we have to tell people things. Then, how do you adapt and communicate but maintain your core, your integrity? This is true for people; it is true for brands. Last week, at the iMedia Financial Marketing Summit in New York, for obvious reason, some of us really pushed this theme.
How do financial services brands adapt their approach, their messaging, the outward expression of their brand personality, without impacting, morphing their core? It is not enough just to say, "We must adapt, people!" We have to get specific about what this means. From strategy, to approach, to method, messaging, and execution -- what do we DO? Does the value lexicon change? The media mix? Do we delve deeper into social media and really start a conversation?
In this time of wobbling unease and mistrust, not to mention very real personal angst, the delivery of content, of message and of services has to adapt from the inside out. So, perhaps the answer is yes to many of the questions referenced above. Themes and messages of privilege and risk/reward no longer resonate. A customer "Bill of Rights" most likely also misses the mark, unless it gets really specific about how people get -- as in, physically retrieve -- what you are offering for value. So might a message on the American Dream fall on stinging ears. Dig in, guys. This is a critical course correction, and it will call on solid customer segmentation, insights and channel strategies - and all your creative juices and messaging smarts. Get your best minds together.
I think about campaigns like HSBC's "Different Values" -- which I noticed recently released a set of ten new ads. To me, this campaign that you've seen in corridors everywhere -- always featuring a set of identical images with completely different value descriptors -- has always conveyed a flat-out identity crisis. If you read the mission statement on the Web site (or on splash pages on any of their sponsored placements), this is about encompassing different consumer values and servicing all. But, do consumers always do that work? As trade, we certainly do. We read, we check it out. Personally, as a consumer, this campaign has never made that connection for me and has just seemed contrived -- a series of gestures that mean almost nothing at a glance. That seems like a bad way to go right now.
Many sectors are put to this imperative -- adapting their personality to times of harsh change. But, it will be most relevant for markets that are more mass, like financial services. Will fashion couture brands adapt personality to speak to creature comforts of the everyman? Probably not. Will luxury brands start marketing themselves as utterly accessible? Also, probably not. But, financial services, media & entertainment, food & beverage, consumer packaged goods, for example, have all just had the bar raised. And the first movers who shift personality just ever-so to connect with the consumer during these trying times will prevail. It's a great time to get in and express your personality -- meaningful gesture by meaningful gesture -- to hit the mark.
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Kendall Allen is senior vice president of Digital Marketing Services at MKTG, headquartered in New York City. Previously she was managing director of Incognito Digital, LLC, an independent digital media agency and creative studio. She also held top posts at iCrossing and Fathom Online.
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