Commitment, consistency and continuity in brand communications
By Nick Dachris | 29 June 2016
Ever wonder why the values corporations claim to have, rarely reflect their reality? Why, in spite of all the storytelling in business, business stories aren't much of a literary genre? Or why mnemonic acronyms of company core values almost never make it to brand names?
Picture a brand as a whale. The largest mammal on Earth lives under the surface of the water feeding on shoals of tiny fish, krill and plankton, and every few minutes it surfaces to breathe displaying a characteristic spout of steam as it exhales.
The brand, of course, is a mental construct. It breathes and feeds on communication. Communication, like the sea, is divided into ATL (Above The Line) and BTL (Below The Line). These terms, allegedly, were coined to distinguish one rate from another by which Proctor and Gamble was paying its Advertising agencies, 62 years ago. ATL is where the public spectacle happens. BTL is where the majority of life goes on for the brand as it does below the water surface for the whale, privately.
We usually see little more than spouts comprised of advertising marks and product packs. The bulk of every brand is hidden from common view, part in our minds and part in the industry that goes on in and around our businesses.
Consumers are mostly exposed just to ATL. Producers, on the other hand, are part of the whale, most of us submerged BTL for our entire lives, or even situated below the skin, oblivious to the shape of our organism, to the wider ocean, or to the spectacular externalities that our very existence is part of in production.
From the point of view of the producer, ATL can seem like an extravagance we could and should do without, given its outrageous media costs and all the risk it entails in evading ROI measurability, now that technology has made BTL so much cheaper and more reliable for accounting than ATL.
Why advertise on prime-time TV, for example? It's one of the most expensive paths there, of no guaranteed effect on sales, not even of much reliability for reaching the audience and not just getting skipped over by the viewers.
Why not just engage the fans online, with branded content that discusses the prime-time TV program, while offering discounts on your brand's products to those fans who get registered on your database?
BTL is common business. Everyone does some networking and trade-deals, market research and sales. On the other hand, very few invest in advertising their goods ATL, on TV or in Print, opening up to a wider audience.
The public only recognises the brand advertised ATL. It has no clue about the contractors who service it, and, even when there is some scandal involved, doesn't give a toss. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to claim that ATL is what sets brands apart from common business.
But without BTL, ATL is a dead end. The krill is under the water. Buying and Selling is a kind of BTL communication, itself. The business needs sales to go on, it can't survive on air alone.
Advertising aids the sale process by promoting AIDCA (Awareness, Interest, Desire, Conviction and Action) to the audience, replacing in part or in full the salesperson. ATL is widening the wider end of the sales funnel, drawing in more prospects and repeat customers. BTL is shortening the funnel's depth, converting more leads to customers and encouraging loyalty.
The redundancy of the salesperson's touch on the sale and often even on the close, accelerating nowadays by the advancements of digital marketing, means that the competition is getting much fiercer than ever, at getting the brand right.
Utility theory tells us that the consumer purchases combinations of products in ratios that give her the most value out of what she can afford. Among two brands of very similar products and very similar salespeople (or digital platforms), the difference lies in the lore that surrounds them.
The consumer chooses the one projecting the myth most relevant to her, that gives her the most comfort and consolation, reinforcing an existing framework of ideals about securing her future, with pleasure in her present. Her choice is promoting her self-actualisation, moving her closer to an ideal of well-being that is prescribed by the myths of her society, albeit unique to every individual.
Yet, the most powerful brands are trend-setters and market-leaders, themselves. How can anyone be that, without taking on the myths that define the values in our markets, and the ideals of the individual consumer who is, crucially for our day and age, also a producer?
That is precisely what digital technology is addressing, what Artificial Intelligence, the Internet, data collecting/processing algorithms and increasing computer power are promising to Marketing. Sales without people, brands without myths, materialism without spirit, actualisation without ideals.
Market data show trends useful for predicting collective behaviour. It's all the same to target consumers that are more likely to become our customers, professionals that are more likely to become our employees, products that we are more likely to buy, and information we are more likely to find relevant to our situation.
We only see what we're already likely to see in the data. Bias is inevitable. If left alone, the trends converge to one schismatic polarity of North and South, that, instead of eliminating myths, is pitting two tyrannical regimes against each other. Everyone seems to be after the same values. "Our" data are facts. "Theirs" are myths.
When something like Wikileaks happens, public judgement reverts to mythical models of decency and propriety that are scarcely inscribed in law. Later, when a scapegoat is sacrificed and panic subsides, we suppress the memory, like taboo, under figures of speech poignantly resembling ad slogans.
We don't know right from wrong without myths we crowd up around to find safety in numbers and frames of common purpose. Myths that we accept as facts because our favourite brands respect, reflect and perpetuate them, and without which no promise and no relayed information could be trusted.
At the deepest, profoundest and most enduring level, every brand is a branch grown from the trunk of an ancient myth, part of an archetypal interpretation of the universe.
Far from contrary to the truth, myth is the macro-economic dream we share in common as opposed to the micro-economic dreams we have in private. It is the wider paradigm in which the "here and now" is true, where whales exist even if you've never seen one, and where goblins making toys for Santa Claus are false even if you've seen them somewhere with your own eyes. It reflects the moral values by which right and wrong can be told apart. And it is the frontier below which there is no meaning, the ocean floor.
Between the floor and the surface, imagine a chain anchoring a buoy of ATL, keeping the brand from drifting aimlessly in the currents of BTL. The currents are inspiring it, making the buoy dance about, but never carry it far away. Standing for timeless values, while offering momentary convenience, makes the brand stronger. The longer it stands for the same values the more it becomes embedded in culture and the more it shapes the old myths after its own image, setting new trends.
Commitment, consistency and continuity in brand communications means that ATL and BTL are always about the same myth, albeit in different media.
The chain of BTL associations matters to the brand so much, that we ought to picture that whale chained to an anchor and a buoy. But let's not resolve to animal cruelty.
Keep chasing the data, harpooning targets that are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely), play safe, especially in the financial sector. Try to keep close to the surface, even if you don't play ATL. Whales don't swim to the ocean floor, either. Call it "agenda", "narrative", "story", "vision and mission", whatever suits you, to avoid using the pregnant word "myth", but never loose sight of the mythical values that drive the brand you're working for.
Regardless whether you believe it or not, you're better off knowing the myth which your brand is coming from, than babbling about corporate values with silly acronyms.