The Direct Approach: The real world

More than in any other medium, direct marketing practitioners need to understand people's lives, Iris' Ian Millner says.

Life is changing faster than ever and the marketing industry is struggling to keep up. The "old model" relied on cash, time and image. When this model was in its pomp, the direct marketing industry was still finding its feet, relying very heavily on paper-based creativity, instead of technology, personalisation and interaction.

The old model of marketing gave birth to blockbuster TV ads and brands such as American Express, Stella Artois and Levi's, with direct marketing providing the rational/transactional pathway to the brand advertising's emotion and hype.

"Brand reality" is different. It is fundamentally about substance. It's about the consumer and the community and culture that he or she operates within. Brand reality works by expressing an existing truth, trend or issue.

Is the arse falling out of the Stella Artois business because its ads are suddenly no good? No - it's because people now know it's not made in a pretty village in rural France, and that it isn't worth paying the extra for. The "reality" is that "premium" lager is no longer premium.

Nike made its first billion dollars from a "reality" called jogging. This happened long before it made any blockbuster advertising. Even now, Nike spends a lot more money on building "reality" via sponsorship, content creation and other such projects than it does on merely advertising.

Direct marketing has never been fooled by image, but it does tend to get bogged down by the past, the need for absolute proof and the desire to "isolate" consumers, breaking down groups into individuals. This causes the industry to occasionally miss the bigger picture, to miss great opportunities afforded by technology and the increasing consumer need for community. The fact is, consumers never do anything in isolation from other consumers.

The reality of consumers today is that they are looking for answers - how to live, what to eat and drink, what to wear, watch and do. Increasingly, they are getting "personalised" answers from the world around them. This is because life as a consumer is more complicated than before, because we don't have jobs for life anymore and because we have three times as many lifestage transitions as we used to.

Modern consumers don't look to blockbuster TV ads for these answers, or mailpacks for that matter. They rely instead on word of mouth, what they can see and imitate, trusted experts, the internet, etc.

And the questions consumers ask in this new "substance-over-style" world tend to be; what is it like, how successful is it, what are people saying about it, how often do I see it, who do I see using it, how do I talk about it?

The key to enabling brands to understand and create commercially beneficial behaviour today lies with direct marketing and its unique ability to recognise people of certain types, and to understand and then predict how they can potentially interact together (profitably).

It seems that the old model of communications, the one that is built around "hierarchy", image, conformity, positioning and brand essence, is being replaced by a much more fluid process, empowered by communities - social or interactive networks.

These networks influence how real people get things done, learn to do things, learn about new things, share things, form pre-disposition and develop bonding (one of the most basic but fundamental consumer needs).

You don't believe me? Look at how much blogging goes on, for example. How big do you think wikipedia, Google or eBay are? Of the all-time top-100 videos on You-Tube, 58 of them were created by consumers.

Direct marketing and brand reality could be brilliant bedfellows. Direct marketing has always been good for getting closer to the individual and for the creation of consumer response, and it certainly needs a broader, more strategic canvas. In return, brand reality needs focus, discipline, facilitation and measurement.

Could the concept of "brand reality" be the missing element so desperately craved by the modern direct practitioner? It's happening all around us and until we start to understand how direct marketing can add to, empower and facilitate this consumer world, we'll still be marginal and somewhat geeky players on the periphery of a consumer-led information revolution that will almost certainly accelerate the demise of the ad agency overlords.

So where do these opportunities lie? What brand realities are waiting for direct marketing?

Personalisation: from designing their own VW Beetle to their own Nike trainers, people are beginning to want and expect the ability to be individualistic in their product choices.

National talking points: building programmes that add significance to the role products play in a consumer's lifestyle. An example was Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty, which tapped into female empowerment.

Regimes and routines: consumers need habits - they keep life simple. The more we create routine around relationships, the more successful we can be and we need clear rules to help build or sustain patterns of behaviour. "Five a day" is a good example.

Clubs and communities: building places (online or otherwise) that allow natural advocacy to happen, where the brand is merely the enabler of the support or advice people naturally give to one another. This advice is more persuasive and credible than anything a brand could ever write about itself.

Celebrity marriages: look for places and spaces where borrowed equity or assets can add to a brand's commercial potential. Strategic alliances can enrich or increase the availability or performance of data, or of media channels such as advertising, the web or retail. Nike and iPod is an example.

Participation: look to create involving experiences that are deeper than mere product trials. Land Rover Off Road Weekends worked well.

Honesty and transparency: the best examples of brand reality are open and offer rewards to the consumer through discovery. This reward motivates consumers. Google, Innocent and Red Bull know this.

Consumer benefit: speak the language of consumer motivation. Look for defining gestures or attributes that show you understand consumer needs. BA's Flat Beds reflect this thinking.

Direct marketing must now be prepared to step out of its network-owned shadows and stake a real claim to be the essential partner for the most enlightened brand owners in the world. To do this we have to change. We have to understand more about the real lives of the consumer. This means we must continue to improve our understanding of how online works. It means bringing a broader range of skills into the tool box such as experiental marketing, entertainment marketing and sponsorship, retail marketing, content creation and PR. Maybe then consumers will start to give a damn about direct marketing ... and senior marketers with them.

- Ian Millner is the joint chief executive of Iris.

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