As mass media advertising gets less effective, brands need to relook at how they tell their story.
For the longest time, big brands were built on big ideas which emerged from deep insights about consumer behaviour. The functionality of the product played a supporting role as the larger emotive meaning took centre stage.
Nike spoke to the self-doubting underdog in you before telling you about its revolutionary 'air' cushioned shoes. Apple inspired creative defiance of constricting conformity before seducing you with its minimalist design and intuitive functionality.
The mechanism for creating the above was largely advertising. However, there was another important dynamic at play. Because of the nature of mass media, brands were largely reaching out to people who were not thinking of buying them. And so, advertising needed to resonate with people who were not necessarily customers at that point, but mere potentials.
By connecting themselves with pre-existing life anxieties, brands subtly entered people's consideration set long before some of them became prospects. You fell in love with Vodafone's promise of a return to innocence even if you weren't in the market for a new mobile phone connection.
As the power of advertising on mass media rapidly declines for a variety of reasons, the consumer decision-making funnel is undergoing a shift as Mckinsey pointed out in its study, 'The new consumer decision journey'. The previously large consideration set is getting narrower and new brands are entering the fray even after a consumer has begun looking for the product.
In other words, the marketing game is shifting from non-customers to active customers.
There will certainly be opportunities to create emotional brand experiences even at this stage, but these would be different.
An active customer is still irrational; still driven by the subconscious but is also a lot more into evaluating functionalities. (S)he is like the person already at the retail shelf with very little pre-disposition towards your brand. You have to start telling your story now. The mechanism of doing so is drastically different, but the need for it is still there.
This is where a large number of brands miss a trick. Most efforts in marketing today appear transactional - digital versions of point-of-purchase material and discount coupons - as compared to the big idea approach.
Because the purchase funnel is different and some of the past tools are less potent, it does not mean that the storytelling should be abandoned. It only means that it must be told differently.
As consumers, we buy meaning, not stuff.
As brands, we must fulfil needs beyond what the commodity does.
The role of consumption to fulfil identity needs will not go away, but the means to connect your brand to those needs are changing.
The answers may lie in advertising or beyond it.
(Amit K Shrivastava is the founder of Learning Curve, a brand strategy, consumer insights and training firm)