Integration Essays: Brand experiences not 'integration'

Brand messages often struggle to be coherent across lots of different media. To avoid that happening, we must focus on brand experiences.

Before we go any further, we have to confess that, at Imagination, we are not totally convinced about what some people call "integration".

A lot of our discomfort comes from the word itself and what it actually means.

"Integration: The action or process of integrating. 1. Making up of a whole by adding together or combining the separate parts or elements." (Source: Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.)

You see, that's where our problem lies. When someone asks for an integrated idea - one made up of lots of separate bits made to look like they are one - it makes us feel a bit queasy. It feels a bit too much like Frankenstein's monster, with some "lead agency" playing the role of Igor.

It can also make us uncomfortable because much of the so-called integrated communications we see in practice are the product of dazzling expediency. One agency creates an idea that is designed to live perfectly well in one medium and that is then squeezed through the tortuous process of "integrating across channels" in a way that obviously doesn't work. You only have to look at the mis-shapen campaigns that abound. You can see the open stitching. Sadly, this "integration'" is the rule, not the exception.

At Imagination, we think we could all feel a lot better if we avoided building Frankenstein's monster - bolting together ideas from bits of other ideas or smearing them thinly and rather tastelessly where they don't belong.

Instead, we would rather that the industry started looking for ideas that are born whole and can be experienced by lots of different people in many different, relevant ways. That means, increasingly, creating not message "campaigns" that get manhandled into whatever channel, but broader-based ideas that reflect the richness of experience a brand offers to a consumer.

We look for "experience ideas", not integrated campaign ideas. But let's stop quibbling over vocabulary. Let's turn to some examples.

"Welcome to the Latin Quarter" for Bacardi ran internationally for many years. But, in order to extend it from a TV property to a live Bacardi drinking experience, consumers would have had to dress like Latinos and dance wild Samba. As the brand was legislated off TV, the idea fell out of use.

The positioning of HSBC as the world's local bank is hugely successful in its ads. However, despite being the best financial services advertising in the world - a brilliant piece of argument made by entertaining creative - it is a very hard to deliver on a rainy high street in Liverpool on a Wednesday afternoon.

"Intel Inside" is perhaps the most famous, visible and valuable piece of branding on planet earth. It is so well used that you can probably see it and hear it from the moon. It is "integrated" into everything.

Trouble is, when you want to talk about what a user feels about what he or she gets out of the machine, it looks more like campaign branding than brand experience.

You might counter that all these campaigns were created before we knew what we know now about integration. That would be half right, but it would be dodging the issue.

"Priceless" for MasterCard is different. It has run all over the world for more than ten years. The campaign exists on thousands of pieces of advertising around the globe but it has been seamlessly expressed through promotions, sponsorships, experiential events, the Priceless.com digital portal and some very useful iPhone apps.

As channels open up, its use simply broadens. I would argue that the reason for this is because it is an "experience idea".

It is based upon a universal emotional truth that reflects a true experience that never gets any less resonant. Whatever you buy, whatever it costs, how you feel about the outcome always matters more.

The experience of using MasterCard is central to the idea. And before anyone shouts "accident", it is worth noting that the campaign's original use was to communicate the changing usage experience you could have with a MasterCard in baseball grounds.

So I guess we see two issues. First, to start with the right intention and, second, to work in a way that ensures we finish up with ideas that work in any part of the consumer's world, rather than a tacked together monster.

We would encourage everyone to stop looking for "campaign integration" and ask themselves "are we creating emotionally truthful brand experience ideas that are meaningful and relevant at every stage a real person touches a product or service?"

And in order to do that we need not an integration process, but a brand-experience creative process.

There is not just one way to do that. We call the way we develop ideas through a multi-discipline workshop "the Imagination experience". We get as many different people together from client, agency and other disciplines, who are relevant to the delivery of a brand experience.

We work together to develop experience ideas conceived with the specific intention of working everywhere. Moreover, we are happy to include partners from any other relevant agency or group. We don't believe we can create the best brand experiences for clients without the help of others. But this way, we are not "integrators", we are "collaborators" in brand experiences, which generally works out better for everyone, not least the brand in question.

- Julian Baker is the European creative director, Douglas Broadley is the chief executive and group creative director, and Paul Simonet is the creative strategist at Imagination.