Once upon a time working in advertising, being part of a global brand such as Coca Cola, Heinz or Gillette was something straight out of Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men. But the days of excitement around products and the wonderful association of feeling younger, more beautiful, cooler or smarter has dissolved. Technology has transformed every aspect of our lives. Google and Facebook seized the attention of the consumer. Cyrus Gilbert-Rolfe, President and Managing Director, EMEA and Oceania, EVRYTHNG, explores the renaissance of Direct to Consumer and how niche brands such as Bloom & Wild, Eve, Gousto and Allbirds have become powerhouses without ever being on a physical store shelf.
I grew up in New York but have since lived in London, for decades now. During most days (before COVID) I would sit in a quiet corner of The Groucho on Dean Street, looking out of the window into the bustle of Soho. The view was of London’s advertising industry moving in real-time around me. People rushed between the film and TV production houses. They had big ideas. Consumer brands flourished, as did the agencies, caught up in the excitement and the boundless opportunities. They got the corporate jet to Madison Avenue. They went to Cannes every June to win a Lion. It was exhilarating.
The goal was to take a product – any product – and wrap it with a wonderful association. You will feel younger. You will be more beautiful. You will finally be elegant and cool. Everyone was very sure of their world.
Now, in 2021 that confidence and surety has fizzled to an all-time low. The tectonic plates have shifted. People in this creative world took too long to realise what was happening to their industry. They were still debating putting a URL on the poster when the building fell down. They had failed to keep pace with the astounding events and developments outside of their ‘world’. Whether it was the agencies or the brands at fault, it didn’t really matter – they all lost their footing.
‘We’re going to sit at our desks and keep typing while the walls fall down around us because we’re creative – the least important, most important thing there is’ – Don Draper to Peggy, after Heinz told him they were going to ‘wait and see if you’re still in business in six months’.
Fiction became reality. Google and Facebook seized the attention of the consumer. In the same moment, we all realised that 99.9% of what’s shown on broadcast media was completely irrelevant to us as individuals. We realised – for a while at least – that targeted ads in social and search were less meaningless, and we started to click on them.
Getting to know me, getting to know you
It started to become clear, even creepy, where the personalisation was coming from. We were writing our own scripts, but that got normalised. Unbelievably intricate profiles (like Muslim, Arsenal, Green Party, Crochet, Trans) started to become manageable information as advertising personas. However, that level of personalisation has had a detrimental impact and now we are starting to feel overwhelmed, but things are likely to change. To what you may ask?
It is demonstrable now that consumers are far less likely to have favourite brands. That got taken away some time ago as information about the behemoths’ brands became more readily available to us, the public. The magic fairy dust evaporated and reality hit. Consumers are now far less likely to ‘Just Do It’ or shout ‘Wassup?’ at their friends or buy something because it is ‘The Best A Man Can Get’.
We don’t shop like that. We type exactly what we need into Google and, probably, we buy the thing that is at the top of the list. If we are reacting to impulse, the chances of us – a) seeing something at random in a shop or in a magazine and buying it, compared to b) being guided by the collective intellect of a million algorithms looking deep into us through the screen of our phone and choosing the right teaser ad to place into a social feed that we then click on – are so slanted it is difficult to calculate.
When efficiency replaces creativity, the need for engaging, entertaining, seductive campaigns fades fast. The ad industry got taken down by the ad business. The ad business has little time for brand stories. Or brand image. Or a brand’s meaning in the culture of now. It prefers data science. The ad business sees shopping as an engineering problem that has been solved by a logical workflow that ends with a shopper being presented with what they want when they want it. What happens to the brand when you do that?
The relationship starts to break down is what happens. This abstraction of the relationship between a superbrand like Gillette or Heinz and its traditional buyer is only one of the pressure points damaging those brands’ performance. Opportunities for others appear. ‘Beanz Meanz Heinz’ was an incredible campaign, but as the memory of that ad fades, the love doesn’t stand up to every grocery e-commerce site placing their own label version front and centre at half the price. The squeeze is on.
The social impact of DTC – toxic trends
And the retailers are not the only friend turned foe. We can now see that Facebook and Google created an opportunity for a renaissance of Direct to Consumer (DTC). The challenger brands, with no history and no retail placements, came punching through. Thousands of DTC brands took off in the late 2000s and 2010s. Social was well established as a credible channel for awareness and reach, and new brands took to selling products directly to end-users over the Internet, cutting wholesalers and retailers out of the process. A new shopping process evolved, tailored around the consumer, not the retailer.
Today, DTC marketing dominates social media feeds, tube platforms and podcasts. Niche brands became powerhouses without ever being available offline – Bloom & Wild, Eve, Gousto, Allbirds, Harry’s, Warby Parker – there is a very long list of brands that have never competed for shelf space with their competitors, not literally anyway, and never bought a single billboard or page in a magazine, at least not until they were already tearaway success stories. Worst still, DTC customers tend to be very affluent with an appetite for shopping. This is a toxic trend for the traditional superpowers.
Time to change the conversation
The biggest opportunity for brands right now is to make the product itself the channel to the consumer. The technology exists to make a physical item inherently digital – just hold your phone near it and unlock your digital relationship. Whether I am holding something I already love (Heinz beans in my case) or something I want to understand better (can this jumper tell me what the working conditions were in the factory where it was made?) the chance to cement the relationship for the brand is new and fresh. As a producer, manufacturer or retailer, I already know the consumer has their phone with them. Can I inspire them to take an action? If I can, my product will become a sensor sending data directly back to me about my products.
This opportunity hasn’t existed since products were sold at market stalls and where sellers meet 100% of their customers. Now food producers, luxury goods, retailers and brands can do that for the billions of items they ship every year. This is a major opportunity for brands to reclaim their relationship, with their consumers, directly.
Digital Transformation – saving brand equity – product by product
Technology is transforming the landscape for all players – the industry and consumers, alike. The next wave of brand engagement is here. We can connect physical products to their own, unique digital identities. Whether it is an Airwick air freshener, or a box of Ritz crackers, a Ralph Lauren polo shirt , or a Tissot watch – literally any physical item – a connection can now be made. Personalised experiences will trigger on a customer’s smartphone, tailored just for them – based on the current context, who they are, where they live, what they have done before, all in the language that they speak. This is a new horizon for brands, and they are seizing the opportunity.
Stories are back in fashion – traceability, sustainability, recycling, reviews, reordering, offers, related products – with a direct digital connection between the consumer and the brand now in place, there are very few limits on what can be created. My AFC Wimbledon shirt can act as my season ticket. My Leon sandwich can tell me if I am allergic to its ingredients. Every product can let me know if the brand behind it is thinking about me – or not.
Alexander Nix, then Chief Executive of Cambridge Analytica, famously gave a presentation entitled, ‘From Mad Men to Math Men’. We’re still on the journey, but increasingly the maths is available to everyone, and we don’t need Facebook or Google for transport – proximity between our phone and the product itself is more than enough. Brands are on their way back.Click below to share this article