The Year Ahead for ... Account Planning

Gareth Goodall predicts that 2012 presents a year of opportunity for brands that can show legitimate leadership in a number of ways.

Gareth Goodall
Gareth Goodall

Some things are so easy to predict that nobody sees them coming.

One highlight of my 2011 was watching David Miliband speak at the Fallon Festival in May. He told us that nobody - not politicians, spies, journalists, al-Qaeda or Iran - had predicted the Arab Spring. Yet, in a country such as Egypt, it should have been foreseeable: a president in place for 33 years, a country with a department of trade that has 80,000 employees on its books but only 750 people doing any work, spiralling commodity prices and a technologically connected population in which 60 per cent of people are under 30 years of age. Miliband called it a "crisis of legitimacy" and pointed out that the signs had been abundantly clear to all.

Cut to a real low point in 2011. It's August and London is on fire. Rioters fan the flames. The blaze catches in the digital breeze and spreads through kindling postcodes. The Coalition Government is caught unprepared. And yet, many commentators have since argued that the signals of disorder were absolutely plain to see.

I think that both incidents, despite different causes and very different motivations, called into question the legitimacy of leadership in their respective countries. 2011 was the year when people demanded a new standard in the legitimacy of leadership. Found lacking in validity, some leaderships did not make it through the fire.

My prediction for 2012 is that the raising of the bar for legitimate leadership will not be confined to political parties. Brand leaders - the brands that set market and thought leadership and enjoy its many financial benefits - will have their legitimacy tested by the fire of consumer interrogation like never before. And brand leadership without legitimacy will risk the very real threat of iconoclasm.

As a result, 2012 will see brands increasingly seeking to raise their standards of legitimacy through their communications and marketing. An interesting exercise might be to predict what these behaviours will be by looking at the sources used by the rulers of countries to exert their own legitimacy. As Miliband pointed out, a country's leadership must be able to fall back on at least one of the following foundations.

1. Democratic mandate

If a brand genuinely wants to remain legitimate by virtue of constituent authorisation, 2012 needs to be the year that focus returns to good old-fashioned consumer insight. Too often, clients' innovation departments overlook insight in preference to business need. Even planners, the supposed guardians of insight, are apt to see it as a dusty old art next to the glitzy world of technological possibilities.

To prove their electability, brands will obsess over the need to evidence that their products truly work. As such, the illusion of the creative idea will continue to bow gracefully before the might of genuine efficacy (with disastrous results for products that disappoint). The supermarkets, most notably Asda, have embraced independent transparency and NatWest has tried to play its part. Who's next?

Finally, democratic brands will seek to remind their voters about the proud history of service they have provided. We'll see a return to old advertising catchphrases, more examples of vintage packaging will be seen on shelves (as Fairy did) and brands will celebrate anniversaries and birthdays with the abandon of ADD toddlers.

2. Revolutionary ideology

In the midst of the inevitable hardships of 2012, one imagines there will be huge scope for brands that seek their legitimacy in the desire to change the status quo for the better. There will never be a better time for the start-up and the entrepreneur.

Those that champion social causes will win (at the expense of the whitewash merchants). Brands such as Unilever and Levi's, which are putting corporate social responsibility at the heart of marketing, will find people gathering behind their raised fists.

And brands such as H&M that bring out-of-reach riches to the people will become the Robin Hoods for a new generation. The revolutionaries of yesteryear will struggle to keep their berets on their £100 haircuts.

3. Theological doctrine

Defining and celebrating a brand philosophy always seems to be the first thing under attack when budgets are tight. And yet people want to believe. "Just do it", "Think different" - both are theologies in which the legitimacy of a brand's leadership can be found.

With this in mind, theologically legitimate brands will constantly look to fuel their belief systems. Consumers will be given more cathedrals to pray in: NikeTowns, Apple stores and Westfields will erect new spires into the godless sky. People will be given new idols to worship, particularly those forged in the furnaces of London 2012, and their mythologies will be celebrated on ever-more technologically magical artifacts. When it comes to business, faith will be proven to be common sense.

4. Royal lineage

Can brands source their legitimacy in the divine right of kings? It seems a stretch. And yet, as the recession worsens, we will see strong performance from brands actively seeking to make consumers bow at their throne.

The prohibitively expensive will do it well: the sneering shop assistant, the fashion shows of clothes you can't wear, the celebrity-only guestlist. And there'll be more exclusivity of cool: the hidden entrance, the last-minute reveal of location. You won't even need to be ridiculously expensive to pull it off: Abercrombie & Fitch seems to do very well by making its consumers queue to step inside its palace.

The danger, of course, is when the peasants realise that the power isn't God-given after all. In 2012, we're almost certain to see a few trips to the guillotine.

5. Charisma

How does a brand express its charisma - that most illusive of legitimacies - in 2012? Certainly, it's going to have to shine more brightly than through a charming on-pack tone of voice.

Charismatic authority is larger than life. Touched by God. Born out of exceptional accomplishment. It is 40 days and 40 nights in the desert. It is parting the Red Sea. Maybe nobody expects brands to perform miracles. But in 2012, people will really, really want them to try. We will admire bravery. We will respect risk. And we will venerate adventure.

My hope is that every brand tries to show more charisma this year. If you can combine it with any of the other sources for legitimate leadership, 2012 could be yours for the taking.

Gareth Goodall is the joint managing director at Fallon.