—– The marketing communications industry is a catalyst of knowledge, talent and opportunity. Nonetheless, strategic communications agencies and firms’ marketing departments are struggling to ensure relevancy against the growing threat coming from management consultancies, startups, Google and Facebook.
From consumers’ ever-increasing ad-avoidance behavior to dated business models and the negative externalities from runaway consumption, marketing communications needs a massive overhaul before commoditizing or perhaps becoming an algorithm. And, when you are using the same data, insights and analyses as other companies in your sector, you are basically relying on being luckier than everyone else.
Offering a new outlook
The urbanization megatrend wholly underpins other forces shaping the way we live, now and in the future, as indicated by the UN, the World Bank and CSIRO, to name a few. Although cities only occupy 2 percent of Earth’s landmass, that is where 75 percent of consumption and an even higher percentage of marketing communications concentrate. Because of increased demand for ever more comfortable lifestyles, the existing urban infrastructures have been feeling “growing pains” for over a decade now.
From energy to education, health, waste management or safety, cities’ services are struggling to keep up with their larger and “hungrier” populations. Therefore, the strategic opportunity is to reframe advertising from the promotion of conspicuous consumption to becoming a regenerative force in the economy of cities. That means, using brands’ touch points as more than mere messengers, but rather delivering public utility services. I coined it “Urban brand-utility”, an approach that can meaningfully and profitably reconnect the industry with people and their host-cities.
The Urban brand-utility conceptual framework flips the current model by enhancing, instead of interrupting, moments of brand interaction with relevant experiences. In fact, an American Express research from 2013, revealed that 63 percent of a total of 1600 participants had their heart rates increased when they thought they were receiving great service and, for 53 percent of those respondents, receiving good service prompted the same cerebral reaction as falling in love!
For example, Indian energy company “Halonix” communicated its brand through LED billboards that lit up at night making streets safer. This campaign supplemented Delhi’s energy grid, the need to bolster its police force and is helping remove the city’s stigma as India‘s rape capital. In fact, following explicit requests from the Indian population, the campaign is rolling out nationally. By creating new meaning in an unprecedented way, Halonix achieved the feat of de-commoditizing energy, exiting a price war.
That does not mean creativity will be killed by utilitarianism. On the contrary, new paradigms will push it to the edge. Health-wise, in Yekaterinburg (Russia), optical retailer “Culturavision” designed a brand identity system featuring patterns that help improve or maintain patients’ vision and an online video doubling as an eye-test. For Danil Golovanov, the creative mind behind this clever branding: “As a company that cares for people’s eyes, it was important for its branding to be useful.” A simple, brilliant solution for road safety was delivered in Salzburg, by beer brand “Stiegl”, by replacing its bottles’ labels with free public transport tickets. Besides shelf-disruption, helping curb drunk-driving would indirectly optimize public-health services from less patients in ambulances, emergency rooms and receiving medical aftercare. In 2013, UTEC – the University of Technology of Lima (Peru) – deployed billboards able to transform humidity from the air into 96 liters of potable water per day as well as having increased enrolments by 28 percent.
Much more is required to create a reliable network of creative, urban resiliency. But according to the 2015 World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Cities: “Cities will always need large infrastructure projects, but sometimes small-scale infrastructure can also have a big impact on an urban area”. A case in point was the deployment of smart bins by internet provider “Portal Terra” across ten parks in Mexico City. By rewarding dog owners when throwing their doggy bags in the bins with free Wi-Fi connectivity, this micro waste-management infrastructure helped counter the 10.000 tons of dog poo randomly dropped every year, as well as the city’s incurring cleaning costs.
However, the above (and several other similar campaigns that preceded and followed) were all one-off activations, great for consumers’ awareness and advertising award entries, but short-sighted in terms of embracing a bigger commercial opportunity whilst addressing society’s most pressing issues.
A smarter planet where interconnected systems guide our choices to increase the likelihood of desired outcomes, making urban life more comfortable and efficient, is central to South Korea’s attempt to promote an industry around the design of smart cities and accomplish the vision of “The City as a Service”. However, there is a darker, Orwellian downside that may see our lives being downgraded into data sets.
Democracy minus privacy are variables that could become part of the Urban brand-utility equation – and jeopardize its success. As criticized by urbanist Adam Greenfield, author of “Against the smart city”, smart cities risk becoming “vast, efficient robots where giant technology companies hope to profit from big municipal contracts”.
On the other hand, brands in free markets represent a dynamic ecosystem involving individual judgements about what to buy and from whom. Thus, Urban brand-utility programs are an opportunity to give back power to the people to, beyond transacting, transform their cities from their shopping decisions. In this “Brand City” construct, consumers “emancipate” as citizens with every purchase effectively counting as a vote, electing the most useful brands to constitute a more integral part of their individual and communal lives.
There are no shortcuts to anywhere worth getting to, and risk will always be part of any type of transformation. As an industry, marketing communications cannot afford to simply evolve; it must leapfrog its trajectory. Data has already given us enough insight. It’s time to embrace ambiguity, apply genuine foresight and stop relying on just being luckier than everyone else. —–
Towards an Urban brandutility infrastructure
Urban brand-utility aims at optimizing municipal budgets by supplementing public utility services or creating new income streams. Through the mechanisms of Public Private Partnerships and the use of open-data, urban media company Sidewalk Labs (an Alphabet Inc. subsidiary) harnessed the opportunity by repurposing New York City’s now obsolete pay phones. Through its LinkNYC totems, a free utility service is now provided to residents and visitors. Besides supplementing New York’s broadband network, LinkNYC also shares its ad revenue as part of the terms of a 12-year contract projected to bring an incremental 500 million US dollars to the city’s pockets.
To enable a virtuous circle, eventually mainstreaming the approach, cities would then arrange for tax breaks, rebates, R&D contributions or other types of incentives. Just like the idea of a circular economy where products and services go beyond an end-user’s finite life cycle, Urban brand-utility looks at marketing communications as closed loops by designing a system bigger than fixed campaign periods, target audiences and business-as-usual KPIs. This way, marketing budgets are effectively turned into investment funds with returns in the form of brand cut-through, happier customers, social impact and more effective city-management.
The University of Melbourne already confirmed that the impact assessment of Urban brand-utility programs is possible and would inform new revenue models and policy-making efforts. Savvas Verdis, Infrastructure Economist at Siemens and Senior Research Fellow at LSE Cities at the London School of Economics, is equally convinced: “I am sure that Urban brand-utility will provide some much needed expertise and transformation [in the marketing communications industry] and particularly in generating new business opportunities for infrastructure, development, tech companies and others tendering with cities through an innovative use of media”.
By matching brands with specific urban challenges, radically innovative propositions and skills would emerge from the frictions between marketers and creatives working closer to urban planners, policy-makers, landscape architects and many others. Interestingly, in September 2016, the City of Gainsville (Florida) and design firm IDEO co-created the “Department of Doing”, aiming at creating a more competitive economy and becoming more citizen-responsive.
Brand City: accelerating a smarter future
e of the biggest spenders of marketing communications, which could be reduced if services provided were more effectively designed and deployed. For the sake of perspective, in 2015, Australia spent approximately 75 million Euros on taxpayer-funded advertisement, the UK 431 million pounds and the USA 1 billion Euros.
Despite heavy communication efforts, the overall quality of services (or positive behavioral changes) on those nations and their cities has not necessarily improved. Governments then resort to behavioral taxation tactics. In Australia, in 2012, the federal government raised more than 13 billion Australian dollars from alcohol and tobacco taxes and for over a year now has been enforcing strict lockout laws on Sydney’s hospitality venues and general alcohol consumption.
Although violence has decreased by 40 percent, there is no evidence the goal of making Australians drink less was achieved. However, a study from Mikayla Novak from Australia’s Institute of Public Affairs provides evidence that besides removing citizens’ autonomy, behavioral taxes change behavior in unpredictable ways, encourage black market activities, disproportionately affect the poor and hurt small businesses.
The traditional model of taxpayer-funded government is not going to change any time soon, but Urban brand-utility could represent the innovation required to reduce public (and, at times, negative) interference over private life, supplement public services and boost cities’ brands.
Seeing is believing. By upgrading its communication efforts onto real-time services, governments would not only reclaim trust, but spend people’s fiscal contributions more effectively; a smart move given the all-time low results from Edelman’s 2017 Trust Barometer. Additionally, cities’ diverse human and natural resources would create Urban brand-utility specialisms, attracting the right talent and investment.
Sérgio Brodsky spricht auf dem MMK17 über seine Vision für das Marketing der Zukunft.