Why brands need to converse, not just tell

In an extract from a new book by Turner Duckworth and Gyles Lingwood, published by Phaidon, creative strategist Daniel D’Arcy argues why brands need to build a reciprocal relationship with their audience, rather than a linear one

There is no magic formula for branding, but there are formulas: marketing frameworks, plans, tools, models and reasons to believe, both functional and emotional. They’re not magic, and they are banal. It surprises me how many brands follow the same formula, the same thinking, the same insights, share the same aversion to risk and expect different results. Generally, the outcome is perfectly forgettable. A dash of salt in the sea of sameness.

Often, clients will describe the ‘business realities’ that I consistently fail to understand. I’ll concede that point and do you one better. I also do not understand why we insist on calling boring work ‘creative’. Somewhere along the way, for many companies, branding became an exercise in ticking all the boxes. Brand purpose? Tick. Brand archetype? Tick. Brand identity? Tick. All this effort to manage a brand.

There’s the problem: it’s an illusion of control. Imagine your new brand positioning cleverly articulates your commitment to planet Earth. The new visual identity has done a bang-up job capturing the brand’s ‘green’ positioning. Hell, it even uses the colour green. Your company commits to doing the hard work of investing time and money into this carefully crafted modern expression of your brand. Then, kaboom. The brand you manage is associated with damaging diverse ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico.

The consumer’s relationship with a brand often goes deeper than the brand manager can get in their 18-month rotation. It really is the consumer who defines a brand

Branding is the business of reputation. And reputation is not created by a wordsmith in a boardroom or protected by a brand guidelines document. As the late great Walter Landor (founder of Landor Associates brand design agency) astutely observed, “Products are made in the factory, but brands are created in the mind.” The human mind. I can’t think of a more intimidating place to try to control.

Brand says X. Consumer thinks/feels/believes X. This one-way process of communication is referred to as a linear model of communication. It is an antiquated model, although a quick look around will reveal many brands still attempting to shape their reputations in this way. The primary failure of the linear model of communication is that it fails to acknowledge the consumer’s unique field of experience. The consumer’s relationship with a brand often goes deeper and further than the brand manager can get in their 18-month rotation. It really is the consumer who defines a brand.

Top and above: © Edmon de Haro, 2024, with permission from General Mills Marketing

I, like many members of my generation, was a latchkey kid. For those who don’t know, this was an entire generation of children who returned to empty homes after school because their parents were out working. My mother often worked 12-hour shifts and the vast amount of unsupervised time alone in the house could create a sense of insecurity. It’s hard to remember every detail of those years, but I do remember always having Cheerios in the house.

For me, the Cheerios brand came to represent stability. Security. Reliability. It was something that I could always count on. Not just to eat, but to be there. This is the meaning of the Cheerios brand to me. Not defined by the marketers of General Mills, who produces them, or articulated through campaign work. But defined by my unique field of experience.

Today consumers invite you into their feeds. Into their lives. Into their media diet. Brands are bestowed a great gift, what are you going to do with it?

Some brands, the ones that really seem to get it, understand that their relationship with consumers is not linear. It is reciprocal. They clearly understand the role they’ve carved out in our culture and in the lives of real people. The goal is no longer to control the brand’s meaning, but instead, if there is an opportunity, to embrace the brand’s meaning. This can become a fertile space to unlock creativity and brand expression. In the way a beloved actor, over the course of their career, has the opportunity to mature, experiment or even play against type, these brands find ways to stay fresh and keep their audience entertained.

The serendipitous reality today is that consumers not only want to be entertained – they expect it. The media landscape of yore was built to support the linear model of communication. In print, radio and television, the audience was captive. Today, as it happens, consumers invite you into their feeds. Into their lives. Into their media diet. Brands are bestowed a great gift, and the question becomes, what are you, the brand manager, going to do with it? Use this intimate moment of connection as one final chance at a hard sell of your product or service? The answer, friends, is no.

Image: Phaidon

A few years ago, the costume designer for Game of Thrones revealed that some of the wardrobe for HBO’s hit TV programme was made from simple Ikea rugs. Ikea responded through social media with their trademark assembly instructions. To construct the Vinter skuldervarmer, the iconic little Ikea builder cuts a neat hole in a rug with scissors and is transformed into a brother of the Night’s Watch.

But why did Ikea spend the time and resources to create this post? Maybe because they appreciated that the use of their product in a major cultural touchstone was significant and, though out of their control, they could play along and turn it into a fun and ownable brand expression. Maybe they saw an opportunity to transform a linear moment into a reciprocal moment. Maybe their lawyers aren’t a bunch of killjoys. And maybe this is modern branding.

It isn’t about control; it is about reciprocity. It’s fun and it’s creative and ultimately interesting to the audience

Another brand that seems to relish in the world of modern branding is KFC. The bravery of their work, and the trust they have in their agency partners, leads me to believe they are anything but chicken. What comes across is a brand clear on the role they play in consumers’ lives, served hot in a unique tone of grandiose humility. At one point, the KFC Twitter account followed exactly eleven people. Those people happened to be all five of the Spice Girls and six guys named Herb. Or look at it in another way: eleven herbs and spices. But for what? For why? Where is the return on investment?

Sadly, return on investment (ROI) is another thing I fail to understand. But what I do understand is branding: the external expression of what consumers know, feel, think and believe to be true about you. It’s not the other way around. It isn’t about control; it is about reciprocity. It’s fun and it’s creative and ultimately interesting to the audience. Something ‘business realities’ rarely are.

This is an excerpt from I love it. What is it?: The power of instinct in design and branding by Turner Duckworth and Gyles Lingwood, reproduced with the permission of Phaidon, all rights reserved; phaidon.com