When clients and agencies talk about the effectiveness of advertising, they tend to concentrate on the role of advertising for commercial product or service brands. The focus is usually on what might be called traditional brands: they exist (particularly in the FMCG world) as simple, physical products that you buy, use and (hopefully) buy again.
What features much less often - and yet is a subject of growing interest - is what role advertising can play for what we might call "non-conventional" brands.
As a result of the nature of the relationship they seek with their users, or the timescale of that relationship or even the way in which they would define users, these non-conventional brands behave very differently to traditional brands.
To embrace these new types of brand we need a new type of brand definition.
One that recognises that brands generally can be more broadly defined than some of the classic definitions in the marketing literature.
One such definition might be: "A brand can be anything from which the people who interact with it can or may in the future derive some kind of 'value' or express some element of their identity, and from which the delivering organisation seeks to gain value, sometimes monetary, sometimes not."
So what kinds of brands are we talking about here, that sit within this "extended" definition?
The most interesting areas are organisations, institutions or individuals that either may have only recently woken up to the reality of their "branded status" or may indeed never have thought about themselves as brands at all.
In the first category might come brands that are struggling to define or redefine their purpose such as the NHS or the Conservative Party.
In the second category come those who might be surprised by the word "brand" being applied to them, such as politicians, an organisation's chief executive, a TV programme or a religion.
These are not necessarily brands we buy (or even consume). They may be somewhere we visit or live, a service we use, something we may or may not believe in, something that comes out of our taxes, an organisation we may need in the future, and so on. Our interaction may be different too ... not a purchase, rather an encounter, a temporary overlap with our lives, a resource we might need to be aware of, for example. So the timescale of the relationship with that brand may be different: long-term, back-of-mind presence, infrequent or remote use.
Hence too, our expectations may be different: less about utility, and more about reliance, trust, even permanence.
As a result, just as classic brand definitions are insufficient, so too are classic buying decision process models. The brands we're talking about may not be "needed", bought, exist in repertoires, satisfy desires, or be used twice.
They may even be "long distance brands", seeking to develop a relationship with you now even if you're unlikely to use them for perhaps decades into the future, for example, the Samaritans, funeral providers, nursing homes or Saga.
They may be trying to reach others (users perhaps) through you, because you may have influence with the person they actually want to reach. Examples could be the Catholic Church, the Scouts or the universities.
Because of these extended timescales and extended audiences, we need the kind of extended brand definition mentioned earlier.
Finally, and perhaps most im-portantly, is the fact that these brands don't wait for you to approach them, they approach you, like strangers offering a hand. And, in approaching you, they may be seeking not purchase, but subscription.
Almost all our historic thinking about brands involves some kind of monetary exchange. But non-conventional brands may not. Rather than asking you to buy them, they may just be asking you to "buy into" them. What these brands may be asking you to do is support them, feel positive towards them, oppose something they oppose, use them in the future - or otherwise allow them into your life, now or in the future.
They may indeed approach you more as people than as products. First impressions, non-verbal communications, tone of voice, attractiveness, empathy, body language - all of these may inform our thinking about the optimum "behaviour" of our non-conventional or "subscription" brands.
The implication of this is that, at the very least, we may need a new model of the "subscription decision process" for these kind of brands. And this in turn will help us to define what role advertising can play in generating that subscription.
The most obvious role for advertising is creating simple name awareness and linking it to the relevant subject. But advertising can also give people a positive picture, or iconic image that they can immediately "conjure" when the name is recalled, such as Comic Relief.
Maybe just one fact, value or impression will "connect" quickly with that brand. Through clarity of proposition, and powerful expression of the brand's essence, advertising can create the familiarity: the "memorable parcel" of images that will endure to a distant point of need.
Importantly though, through execution, advertising can disarm, give humanity, raise a smile - all of which can affect the "attractiveness" of the brand, and hence "disposition".
It's early days for these kinds of brands, and for this kind of model, but the concept of "subscription", and the process it implies, might help in the appreciation that, for many organisations, traditional "buying" models are inappropriate. In this new world of brands, a new approach is needed - one that is sensitive to the subtleties of organisations that are often at the beginning of their journey into the communications arena.
The subscription decision process model outlined here perhaps represents a valuable first step along that road. And the role of advertising suggested at each stage will perhaps help the "brand owners" in these organisations to identify and develop new and more imaginative ways to deploy this most powerful of communications vehicles.
- Leslie Butterfield is the chief executive of the strategic brand consultancy Butterfield8.
His new book, Advalue: 20 Ways Advertising Works for Business, is published by Butterworth Heinemann, price £19.99 and is available through the IPA.