Join the conversation!" the excitable ad squealed. "Be part of the conversation," the achingly cool social media guru urged. "This is a dialogue, not a monologue," the crisply suited chief marketing officer mused. Wherever we turn, we are being implored to join this fabled brand conversation.
But, let’s be honest. How much do consumers want to be part of the conversation? Who wants to upload pictures for a margarine brand’s microsite? Or "like" a toilet bleach? Oh, it’s easy to be cynical. But, then, it’s our job to be – to deal in human truths and insights, not conjecture or marketing spin. But, come on – what is really going on here?
The truth is, all great marketing or advertising campaigns have a powerful cultural interaction with their audiences – whether we call that "buzz", "conversation" or "word of mouth". And they are always born from having a deep relationship with the audience that is built on empathy.
When we create campaigns, even on a global level, we talk about "feeding the beast" – how we can contribute to a subculture in a way that gets people excited about our story, want to talk about it, blog about it and share it.
This year, we were honoured to win the Grand Prix at the Euro Effies for the launch of PlayStation 4. The campaign, "for the players", had empathy and cultural understanding at its heart – where the "beast" that required feeding had a very precise diet that needed satisfying.
The gaming console war was one of the big global marketing stories in 2013-2014 and, with Xbox looking to outspend PlayStation by three to one, our job was to ensure that we won the hearts and minds of gamers.
PS4 itself was designed for gamers by gamers, so being at the heart of gaming culture was key – from teaser films featuring obscure gaming characters to big TV commercials that had 50 hidden references, right through to events and activations that gamers ate up with relish.
Know when to whisper, know when to shout
Our campaign started many months before the actual launch, using digital-centric PR, partners and events such as Gamescom. Paid budgets became more relevant closer to the launch in November 2013. Coupled with iconic activations such as the Oxo Tower and transport hub take-overs, the PS4 had a cultural role that connected deeply with "the players".
This was a campaign that those outside gaming culture might stare at but those inside the culture would devour. Along the way, we put just enough information and content out to get people excited so that, on day one of launch, retail demand was exceptionally high.
Help them come together
Providing the right tools at the right moment made a huge difference to the way gamers engaged with the PS4. The online "monument" allowed players to pledge their allegiance to the PS4, and "#4theplayers" was a call to arms across social media that the audience could own themselves – rather than the brand.
The brand became empathetic and empowering, while Xbox just seemed to talk about itself. The result was that PS4 outsold Xbox by a factor of 2:1 to become the most successful gaming launch of all time.
Best-in-breed examples don’t talk to their audience – they are the audience
When we look at other brands – be it Apple, or Nike and its relationship with the football-obsessed teen, or media brands such as ESPN in the US that have always understood the need to take sport, but never themselves, seriously – they know exactly how to "feed the beast" of their audience because they are the audience. At their best, those brands are run by and curated by nerdy designers and football obsessives, and, when they are not, it shows.
Who is really in charge here?
More interesting is the question: who sets the agenda – the audience or the brand? We are often told "the consumer is in charge". Others say it’s the brand. Well, it is the brand’s behaviour and communication that create desire: a new shirt each season for football clubs? A new upgraded phone? All of these are marketing.
But it is not that straightforward. More often than not, it’s a power-sharing arrangement, a kind of push-pull. A brand can be chewed up and spat out if the consumer decides so. But that same consumer is always hungry for more and needs to be fed. So, if you’re a brand, you have to get your message just right or you might get bitten while feeding the beast.
Al Moseley is the president and chief creative officer of 180 Amsterdam