Integration Essays: Actions speak louder than words

At its essence, good integration goes beyond the 'big idea' and communication. Instead, it is about uniting around a single vision.

Jonathan Harman...president EMEA of Carlson Marketing
Jonathan Harman...president EMEA of Carlson Marketing

In any debate about integration, it is natural to think, first and foremost, in terms of media. For decades, the discussion has been rooted in specialisms. It's all advertising agency versus direct agency, versus digital shop. One agency acquires another, bringing disciplines together; another launches, claiming to have everything under one roof; another scoffs at the idea that one shop can have an equal grasp of everything.

In terms of execution, the debate has evolved from the simple "matching luggage" principle, in which adherence to brand guidelines was all, to the much vaunted "big idea", which you will no doubt have seen on every pitch document written since around 1997.

In terms of boosting the effectiveness of a single campaign, a coherent look and feel across all messaging and media remains sensible. But at a higher level, it's difficult to resist the notion that things are moving on once more. Just as the debate about agency specialisms and structures can be tedious, the accepted wisdom of the big idea now seems too obvious. Surely there is something more to be brought to a brand's table?

The elephant in the corner of the room is the internet. Or, more pertinently, how it is changing the way people view and interact with brands. Everybody talks about how powerful today's consumers have become, but fewer are looking at this in terms of its impact on marketing communications. There is a new fluidity to brands' relationships with consumers, and unprecedented access to information and opportunities to offer feedback, positive or otherwise. The techniques marketers have at their disposal are simply insufficient to keep up with this change; with so many voices out there from so many brands, words become less and less useful. In this context, it's hard to get excited about the current models of integration. It's almost as if there is another dimension to brands that must be expressed in order for communication to be truly effective.

Good integration is becoming less about simple communication and more about uniting an organisation around a single vision. But rather than the "big idea" of the ad campaign, this vision is about exactly what a brand exists to achieve for its customers. Taking this as its starting point, it then becomes about actions; whereby a brand creates anything from products and tools to initiatives, events and programmes. It becomes about creating anything that will help a brand achieve its vision profitably.

You only need to look around you to find examples of brands failing to deliver on their visions, creating problems for themselves in an age where feedback is swift and unforgiving. HSBC's idea that it is the world's local bank has never been an easy one to execute. Few will have missed the controversy over whether its sumo wrestler was made to look rather more oriental than nature intended. For a bank that trades on its sensitivity to local nuances, this was a blow to its credibility. But equally, I can recall a visit to a branch where the lady behind the counter was unable to tell me what currency I might need in Prague. Lofty ideas can be punctured quickly if they're not nurtured at every level and supported by the right actions. Witness, too, the difficulties faced by Dove and its "campaign for real beauty", which has faced accusations of hypocrisy.

The problem is that branding, and the communication that derives from it, is often a bolted-on afterthought. It exists in a kind of vacuum, removed from the reality of the customer's experience of a product or service. This makes true integration virtually impossible, because at some point along the customer journey, something will let the brand down.

At the outset, it is, therefore, critical that a brand proposition fits "integratable" criteria. While by no means perfect, something like the AA's "fourth emergency service" adds life to the brand and provides a compelling banner under which the whole company can march. Equally, even though it might limit its appeal, The Co-operative Bank's ethical stance is a concept that gives it something worthwhile and manifestly appealing to say. While it may not relate directly to the day-to-day experience of customers, it adds meaning to the organisation and makes it easy to see the kind of activity that fits. You can certainly predict the kind of thing it might sponsor, for example.

Other propositions are less easy to enact. Ford's "Feel the difference" struggles for relevance and is hard to bring to life. Ford makes little attempt to integrate it into its activity beyond advertising. Others, such as Nokia's "Connecting people", have bags of relevance to the product, but are not injected with meaning via actions. Contrast with O2's "We're better, connected", which is vividly rendered by its sponsorship properties such as The O2 Arena and Wireless festivals.

In essence, brands today need to build things, rather than badge them. Integration now encompasses every action a brand takes and how it takes it. So, to expect to simply lend your name to something and feel the reflected glow no longer works. Likewise, taking a square peg of a proposition for your round hole of a brand will be found out all too quickly.

Integration has become about so much more than communication; but this is a healthy state of affairs. A well-thought-out brand proposition means so much more than a simple "big idea" for a campaign, no matter how well executed. It adds depth and meaning, and provides a focus for everything a brand does. As a result, it not only makes true integration far easier to achieve, but also far more meaningful to consumers.

- Jonathan Harman is the president EMEA of Carlson Marketing.