Whilst this year will bring a host of new-era mantras and a balance of the return to good things of old that have been missed and new things that reshape experiences, my hope is that, high on the list of change will be a break with the sins of marketing self-obsession. And, as part of that, a reset of what will really impact business success, drive audience engagement, and land a spirit of proper innovation that goes beyond a new flavor/variety/colorway.

More pleasure, more joy, more escapism, and more honesty will be on the consumer wishlist from brands who strive to talk to them effectively in the new economy.

Easy to say instead of doing, but the start point I believe is a manifesto for change, simplicity, and challenge for marketing, branding, and innovation that is fuelled by the right kind of focus, led by three overarching principles.

1. Less marketing-led sustainability decisions, and more front-foot-first decision-making

While consumers may not seek out sustainable, ethical, and socially responsible products quite as often as we’d like to think they do, they aren’t stupid when it comes to BS on the subject. And, at a simple touch of a socially linked button, they love creating drama when you overstate your worthiness.

In general, when marketing leads the sustainable story, you are in the wrong place and increasingly risk cynicism or worse. And, when it looks like a profit chase, you are most definitely conflicted and playing a questionable game. When packaging uses ‘claims’ that are part way designed to gain shelf space as the priority, it’s potentially a short-term victory that could lead to a longer-term failure if handled with a marketing sledgehammer.

So, to get it right, build it from the right starting point of making a difference for the right reasons.

Don’t bamboozle with stats that aren’t credible or that shoehorn in a sales message. Invest less money in shouting about it than in exploring better product or packaging alternatives. Use your sustainable packaging to help tell your journey and story instead. Be clever around how you innovate from a sustainable perspective from product idea to earned shelf space. And be discovered and talked about in a more (no irony intended) organic manner. Being proud of your contribution is fine, as long as the sequence behind the journey is genuine.

2. Less “me too” copycatting with products and more design and packaging rule-breaking

Walk down a retail aisle and all too often we see generically designed products that, label aside, are all born from the same idea. It may tick cues of familiarity, but it fails on originality and leadership. Pasta, hard seltzers, shampoos – all a blur when it comes to shopping the aisle.

Have we got so caught up with ‘category codes’ that brands are too scared to step out of their comfort zone?

I fear the pandemic has left us fearful of our own shadows. Safe and bland marketing. Drip drop innovation. NPD motivated by legislation. Whatever happened to gut instinct, being brave, taking a risk?

Marketing and turning customer heads must kick in from the insight and innovation stage to springboard ground-breaking new ideas. Category expertise and knowledge should be the foundation of seeing the rules that can be broken, and not just followed. Stretching brands into other categories should be explored where values and personality could fit and disrupt from a point of positive audience surprise. And learning from the global challengers in broad categories and not just the leaders should be pursued as the first point of call, as part of deep dive listening that doesn’t rely on focus groups with A or B outcomes.

Let’s not water down differentiation to the smallest of margins, fonts, or liveries. If ever there was a time for a rebirth of fresh thinking and open minds that people want to see…

3. Less complicated brand frameworks for everyday products, more focus on the ‘secret sauce’

In a world of mass consumerism, ‘brands’ are everywhere. From personal branding and social selling to traditional bricks and mortar FMCG brands that we pile high in our supermarket trollies – you can’t escape the role they play in our lives, or the amount of time marketers spend obsessing over them.

So, why do we make it harder for ourselves?

Even the simplest brand positioning framework is complicated, detailing functional vs. emotional benefits, occasions, audience personas, consumer insights that drive the minutiae of every action, unique selling points, personalities, values, vision, and purpose.

Are you kidding me?! You sell biscuits, soap, air conditioning units, stationery. Let’s get realistic. Is there such a thing as a straight-talking cookie or a dynamic bar of soap, air conditioning units that aspire to change the world, or pencils that speak directly to Gen Z drivers?

Have we become so fascinated by the world of brand and communications that we feel it necessary to romanticize what we are?

All in the hope that, by bombarding consumers repeatedly through different comms channels, you’ll eventually find their sweet spot. And have we fallen into a trap of thinking they have to say something, anything at all, just to be heard? And is the focus on noise and micro-targeted visibility, regardless of whether it moves the dial on long-term brand growth, more important than what is being said?

In Byron Sharps’s book How Brands Grow Part 1, he sets out to prove that brands grow through acquiring new customers. It’s a simple theory, that now has ‘penetration’ as a number metric on every marketer’s KPI list. And, I believe that, in order to acquire new customers, your potential audience needs to buy into a brand idea; not necessarily the brand itself.

A brand idea is something simple and meaningful; a product truth, a consumer solution (solving a tension), a life hack, a passion point, to be part of a community – all of which translate into customer acquisition and growth of sales.

Al Ries and Jack Trout set out to prove (in their marketing classic ‘positioning’) that, before undertaking the 4P’s of marketing (Product, Price, Place, and Promotion), you must first focus on positioning. And specifically, the idea of positioning the product in the mind of the prospect.

Founders, entrepreneurs, and marketers always start with positioning – but very rarely with the ‘brand idea’, which needs to come way before positioning. Your secret sauce. The special bit that needs to happen before you start applying theories of brand positioning and targeting.

So, rather than obsessing with the positioning of your product for Stephanie, 22, a gym-going, animal-loving, sociable, city-dwelling cliché, focus instead on the ‘secret sauce’ question that sets you apart from the pack, rather than fitting right in. That makes you interchangeable while standing out makes you original and relevant for much broader cast mindsets in the positioning game (when you get there) as opposed to demographics. Which in today’s world is much more of a valuable scope. And much more about robust product and brand than defining marketing room only emotional brand character.

Because that is what the audience wants and needs.

Cover image source: Franki Chamaki