You cannot not communicate. I first heard this phrase listening to Erik Spiekermann, the typographer, type designer, writer and all-round bright bloke who's more charmingin his fifth language than I am in my native English.
Spiekermann used the phrase to describe the rights and wrongs of choosing typefaces. Put simply, the typeface you choose when putting together a signage system for an airport, an English-language textbook or a wedding invitation says an awful lot about you and the importance you place on the information you're communicating.
I first heard this powerful phrase as I was scanning copy for Audi's first global website. Back then, the internet had not been a corporate communications tool for long, so everyone was under intense pressure. Imagine building such a hugely complex engine for a company which staked its claim with the tagline "vorsprung durch technik". Having to deliver right, first time, a digital resource of such public and private importance wasn't so much a monkey on our backs as a gorilla.
Since then, I have constantly referred back to the principles of the phrase "You cannot not communicate". It has so many important implications when it comes to the way we talk to customers, whether online or offline, in public or private.
In fact, its partner phrase "everything you do says something about you" is every bit as powerful and connects in a very different way. Put simply, in these days of smart consumerism, it's about keeping promises. When a brand makes a promise, it does so irrevocably. "Every little helps", "doing the right thing", "for successful living", "a good deal better", "now there's a thought", are all examples of powerful promises that are well and truly in the public domain. And, after months of private wrangling and finessing, the second that an assertion appears in the public domain - that's it. Everybody had better be certain that operationally, and creatively, the means to substantiate that promise in a relevant and measurably effective way have been put in place.
Re-reading Jackie Stevenson's "The back of the net" from last year's Direct Approach, it is clear that digital's great challenge involves keeping promises in a medium that offers instant gratification and immediate disappointment. Steve Krug, an admirer of Spiekermann, probably said it best for digital with the title of his excellent book on usability, Don't Make Me Think. Like a beautifully tracked piece of direct marketing, the best websites are liked the "greased chute" so beloved of traditional direct response advertising.
Fortunately, there are numerous examples of promises made using a powerful creative expression - the best have turned out to be seminal campaigns. I would argue that people admire the Avis "we try harder" campaign because Avis made a promise based on honesty, and was then operationally ready to deliver on it. The work that went into "trying harder" is probably far less glamorous. But without it, the assertion would have been hollow, leaving customers unimpressed and disappointed.
Promises are also crucial to the success of hard-working direct response ads. "They laughed when I sat down at the piano" might be an old chestnut compared with today's gymnastic direct marketing creativity, but one thing is certain: when John Caples sat down to write that ad, he was sure that the promise of life-changing learning was something the US School of Music could deliver. The ad is still relevant.
For today's equivalents, look no further than "every little helps", a promise that benefits from genuine, daily, value-led substantiation through Tesco's Clubcard. You feel that Tesco relates back to this promise whenever it does anything. Nick Smith, the chairman of the Marketing Society, puts the matter very succinctly: "A great promise comes from the heart of the brand and seems to connect in a way that you can't challenge. They are rare. And the best ones are founded in truth."
Simon Uwins at Tesco is firm in the belief that brands have a body language that customers pick up on. Either they sense confidence and energy, or drift and lethargy. Forget about "straplines" and "campaign thoughts". Promises ought to be the framework, the structure, the building blocks of a brand that seeks success, fame and public affection. Consistency and determination need to be demonstrated by the architects of these promises. As customers start to tire of the promise, they suddenly start to get it and realise how it joins up every aspect of the brand's behaviour.
No too long ago, a brand's promise might have taken the form of a quasi-religious mission statement. The problem was few mission statements were less than four presentation slides in length and most were cloaked in inward facing corporate speak, rendering them indecipherable to all except the authors or the consultants behind the authors. If you need to animate, dress up or dramatise your promise, it probably isn't right. The words should speak and act for themselves.
The challenge is to make sure your promise is brief, easy to grasp, and - of course - easy to deliver. The challenge is to allow stakeholders - be they employees of the brand, or the champions of that same brand within an agency - to adopt the promise in a way that is meaningful to them, and easy to express personally and professionally.
The promise should also lie at the heart of the creative brief - it should be the ultimate guide on what the longer-term purpose and effect of the work ought to be, the filter through which all creative thinking should pass. Bringing the clarity of such a promise to bear on the strategic and creative health of a piece of business can only be to the benefit of client and agency alike.
The fact is, if everything you do says something about you, every aspect of your communications needs to adhere in some way to the promise at the heart of the brand. From the way the phone is answered, to the way a website works seamlessly and making response devices clear and easy to execute off the page, the way a brand makes contact with its prospects and customers - what some might call the customer journey - is something that will always benefit from rigorous scrutiny.
Ultimately, delivering a promise takes more than advertising and more than a media-neutral approach and the attention of inquisitive planners and bright creative minds. Effective delivery is about making a brand promise personal, relevant and experiential. That requires considerable bravery, operational energy and shareholder patience. But keeping a promise builds loyalty and trust, values that still count for an enormous amount.
- Patrick Baglee is the creative director of EHS Brann.