Donald Trump’s stunning victory in the American presidential election reflects two basic facts. Hindsight is always 20-20 but they should have been obvious to the pundits.
First, people are moved by emotionally-charged messages. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. But more people than expected were swayed by Trump’s fear-laced populism. His “America First” rallying cry of economic resurgence boiled the pot. Democrats’ reliance on “big data” and micro-targeting to get out the vote could not compensate for a merely competent candidate who could be culturally tone deaf. (She never compellingly answered the question in voters’ hearts, “What’s in it for me?”)
Second, the twin forces of globalization and technological disruption reinforce a sense of pending chaos — that is, economical and social displacement. This, in turn, has exacerbated tribalism to the point where different American demographics co-exist without dialogue or understanding. “Red” and “blue” seem to exist in parallel universes.
Marketers should absorb the lessons of Trumpism.
Our margins are declining. But as we restructure to become “future proof,” let’s avoid spinning off our axis.
First, data salvation is a myth. True, analtyics-driven solutions will be increasingly important. But marketers should not ignore the importance of consumer insight — that is, a deep understanding of human motivations. This is a qualitative, not a quantitative, imperative. (People are loath to reveal true feelings to someone administering a questionnaire.) To unlock insight, marketers align data science with psychology, sociology and cultural anthropology. Hypotheses of what touches the heart are generated by asking the question “Why?” And listening for nuance.
Many marketers, haunted by dystopian visions of an algorithmic future, have placed their bets on what WPP’s Martin Sorrell calls “block and tackle” scaled transaction. In the process, conceptual craftsmanship born of insight — the secret sauce of creative ideas — is often left in the dust. Management consultancies — now direct competitors with advertising agencies — offer digital media optimization in addition to conventional top-down growth templates.
But a brand’s most unique assets, many of them intangible associations, are ignored. (Not all outfits are equal. The Brand Relevance Index of Prophet, a marketing and brand consulting company, measures brand strength based on variables that touch both head and heart — customer obsession, pragmatism, inspiration and innovation. According to the firm’s Chief Growth Officer Scott Davis, products and services with high BRI scores “make real differences in consumers’ lives.”)
Again, it all starts from insight.
Second, we must fight the forces of tribalism. Technology opens up new engagement possibilities. So great brands deliver delight across a expanding array of digital and analog touch points. But chaos results if “omni-channel” experiences are not cohesive. This requires deep collaboration between conceptual distillers (idea crafters and storytellers) and systematic thinkers (inventors of new engagement opportunities).
We are not there yet. Touchy-feely and quant-jock types are farmers and cowboys, awkwardly co-existing without any real understanding of what makes the other camp tick. This is natural — birds of a feather flock together — but bucks against forging mutually-satisfying relationships between brand and consumer.
Anti-tribalism needs to be aggressively advocated. R/GA’s Nick Law promotes “tightly coiled” teams to ensure that “beautiful ideas” inspire at the brand level and perform at the right touch point. (An esprit de corps requires humility. There are no experts, no Napoleonic saviors. It’s all yin and yang, and we all have lots to learn.)
Bridges of collaboration also require meticulous engineering. Corporate assets need to be redeployed to maximize flexible resource allocation within and between operating companies. Organizations with similar cultures should be clustered more tightly. For example, advertising agencies, public relations firms and media planning units all attract lateral thinkers. E-commerce, digital platform and media buying companies attract linear thinkers. And the number of profit centers should be minimized.
But communications holding companies are having a difficult time leading the way. This is due to: a) short-termism driven by quarterly results and b) more fundamentally, dominance of CFOs who can’t grasp that great brands exist at the intersection of soft empathy and hard intelligence.
In order to transcend tribal impulses, our industry will require both structural reconfiguration and optimistic, non-messianic leaders with the charisma to unify diverse talent pools. If not, we will confront our own Titanic.
Let’s learn the right lessons from the unfortunate rise of Trumpism. Let’s find new ways release the power of empathetic insight. And let’s find new ways to join hands across gulfs that separate us.