To appreciate how broken most contemporary models of advertising and promotion have become, listen to Jeff Bezos complain about how Amazon's core values are misunderstood. "One of the early examples...was customer reviews," he recalls. "One [critic] wrote to me and said, 'You don't understand your business. You make money when you sell things. Why do you allow these negative customer reviews?' And when I read that letter, I thought, we don't make money when we sell things. We make money when we help customers make purchase decisions."
Exactly. The overwhelming majority of advertising/promotion/marketing/branding investments and expenditures most organizations make today are more about "selling things" than "helping customers." What do you think customers find more appealing? Amazon invests accordingly. Customers aren't idiots; they know when they're being sold. They're both smart and wired enough to seek out — and appreciate — quality assistance.
Consider Amazon's recommendation engines. They're "membrains" interfacing advice and influence: advisory in recommending reasonable and relevant options, influential by basing those options on the choices of people with comparable interests. Bezos' recommenders are predicated — and dedicated — to the proposition that providing meaningful contexts for customers makes purchasing decisions easier, safer and better. Shoppers are but a click away from learning more about their potential buy. That's compelling. Recommendation engines and reviews have both proven remarkably (cost)effective sales, marketing and promotional media for Amazon.
The secret of their success, of course, is that they don't sell. That insight's neither counter-intuitive nor paradoxical; it reflects the marketplace reality that customers can easily discover everything about your products and services that you don't want them to — whether it's true or not. Consequently, the Bezos bet is that relevant recommendations and reviews — good advice — are better brand investments than digital sales pitches. Close the deal by being openly helpful and helpfully open, not by "selling better." Amazon transformed customer behaviors and expectations by consistently favoring innovative "advice" over sales-oriented "advertising" and promotion. Credibility comes from commitment to facilitate decision, not calculate persuasion.
That's brand building's digitally-mediated future. In mobile and tabletized environments, "advertising" increasingly gives way to "advice" and "aducation" — genres that effectively and affectively persuade because they authentically try to do and be more than sales gimmicks. Digital technologies push firms to recognize, rethink and reorganize how they should make their customers smarter and more confident. Turning customers into bargain hunters, after all, doesn't necessarily make them smarter; it teaches them to pay more attention to the price they pay than to the value they get.
The advice/aducation marketing challenge comes from redefining advertising as an investment that makes your customers more valuable to you, not just an investment that makes your brand more valuable to your customers. Amazon innovatively reinvests with that philosophy and that's how — and why — it's successfully redefining retail. Sales don't drive the UX; they're its happy byproduct. That digital design sensibility has yet to seep into marketing's mainstream.
Like retail, advertising and promotion are living through their own version of the showrooming phenomenon. But rather than furtively (or brazenly) price check on one's mobile in the retail aisle, customers treat typical ads, offers and "calls to action" as yet another piece of data to input into instant search. Precisely because it's an ad or a coupon, it can't be trusted. Ironically, that's digital advertising's "brand." Everything worth buying is checkable, Yelpable or Amazonable. Crassly put, advertising becomes less about building brand awareness than triggering digital due diligence.
Where showrooming hollows out traditional retailing's pricing and promotional strategies, "adzooming" similarly undermines brand narratives and advertising claims. The marketing implications here are infectious, viral and potentially deadly. How receptive will customers, clients and prospects be to hard sell/soft sell advertising and promotions online (and elsewhere) when they've been digitally trained and empowered to look for and receive quality recommendations and advice?
The answer to this question is not, "Gee, we need better advertising and promotion!" It's "organizations need something better than advertising and promotion."
The distinctions that make a difference will be value-added aducation and advice. After decades of complaints about the poor quality of its instructions and documentation, for example, Ikea set up a YouTube channel showing people how to easily put together its most complex furniture. The "ad"vice and "ad"ucation here is simple and straightforward: the more comfortable and confident Ikea can make its customers about assembling its products, the simpler and easier it becomes for them to make the buy. If you're marketing, branding and selling Ikea's brand future, you've got to wonder whether "training" and "education" will play marginal or pivotal roles in (re)engaging customers.
Take a quick look at MyLowe's and P&G's Pampers sites. They're nascent — dare I say "baby"? — steps not just to rethink customer engagement, loyalty and "lock-in," but whether and how to better educate and train customers. Again, information is a necessary but not sufficient condition here. Textbooks — digital or otherwise — are not educators. Who's going to be the Salman Khan for a Starbucks, a Ford, a Haier and/or a GlaxoSmithKline?
Financial services firms, health care providers, automobile companies and consumer packaged goods enterprises already understand that adding new features and functionality to products and services now matters far less to their branding efforts than figuring out how to get customers to sample and test them. How are you using digital media to help your best customers and prospects to better educate themselves? How are you making them smarter and more capable? Companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Ikea and IBM have answers to that question. What's yours?
As fond as brand advertisers may be of talking lizards, doofus dads and hip hamsters behind the wheel, the cutesy and clever is rapidly decaying into memebait. They'll command attention but little else. The digital and digitizing future belongs to the best aducators and advisors who make clients, customers and prospects measurably smarter and authentically more confident. That's a challenge a David Ogilvy, Jay Chiat and Rosser Reeves would appreciate. But my bet is their clients will do a better of rising to that challenge than their successors.
An HBR Insight Center