Great products make great advertising and never the other way around; any differing version is purely delusional. A burst of brilliant creativity may spur trials but that will remain sporadic, unless performance is admirable and nonstop. This was always a valid albeit arguable truth, in the post-corona world residual doubts will certainly vanish.
A valuable learning from this crisis, applicable for brands and people, is the often-heartbreaking distinction between promise and delivery. Tech-enabled services failed to make the mark with distasteful regularity, only to be bailed out by the soft-spoken neighbourhood store. The chicken stalwart of Gurgaon, Licious, surrendered literally on day one while many famed aggregators became strangely non-responsive as demand surged, alibis frankly irrelevant. Just as we are now discovering the realities and not facades of human kinship, we are recognising the brands that mean business and not just conversation. As a result, destroying the preening fallacy built lovingly by the creative industry — how advertising is a splendid solo artist and not the industrious team actor.
This superhero dimension of advertising arrived from a comparable version of spinach, which was clearly the awards culture — the King of the African jungles granted to none less than monarchs. While in truth, the efficacy of a product or service was invariably the primary source of value, advertising converting it to an attractive invitation tapping adorable insight. What was at best an indulgent fantasy for folks like us soon assumed scalable proportions, when the client was coopted in the awards process — understandably cherishing the sun-soaked limelight as a deserving reprieve from operative mundanity. A possibly-perilous though comfortably-maintainable equilibrium — until the quartet of venture funding, tech-enablement, fluid outsourcing and service explosion changed our lives unimaginably.
Quite suddenly, anybody could enter any business at any point of history or geography, unless thwarted by IP or regulation. This also meant, most notably, that the rigor of product development was seriously compromised — technology and efficiency becoming surrogates for compelling content and proven performance. A very appalling yet telling indicator being tech-enabled services, the grocery apps or cab-sharing or even delivery unifiers struggling to define their value proposition, borrowing from generic category codes or perceived customer expectations. Popular fashion is yet another specimen as is any matter connected to electronics or electricals — amenable overseas factories offering sufficient space for indigenous branding and voila, we have another newbie. Although immensely successful in India, the iconic British brand MG is betting its future on a Chinese car, iconic ‘origins’ now simply a HO address.
While all of this is scalable economics, please do note its impact on brand communications, the focus of this essay. On uncountable instances in recent memory, I have received client briefs which are incomplete and insufficient on objective and not subjective criteria — the value proposition hastily stitched using technology, novelty and demand as stimuli. A mobile phone no different from the fellow, an apparel label twinning with several, a food-tech app that is shallower than Nirav Modi’s integrity, a real estate story that is painfully repetitive, chocolates that are pedestrian — in each case advertising summoned to miraculously band-aid fundamental defects with coherent attractions. In tune with this anomaly is an immense rush-to-market, time recently a ruthless foe and not a nurturing ally.
Quite a resounding departure from the era that was then, when the advent of a product or even service was the outcome of unending R&D and consumer testing, the entry to market an analogical five-year-plan. Advertising used to play middle-order stroke-player, on a fine foundation established by Wisden-schooled openers — today we are oftentimes Hardik Pandya and Rishabh Pant padded up against Dale Steyn on a day one Cape Town track. Tempting metaphors aside, this is a real crisis — products that are half-baked becoming briefs for the agency and doomed for debacle, however good the advertising is. No amount of age-old or new-age techniques including the messianic digital marketing can turnaround a poor value proposition, a lesson soundly-taught to many hapless corporate parents.
Enough of opposition-style problem mongering and time to offer some solutions instead. Firstly, to educate the founders and funders that sharply defining the product is the most vital ingredient for success — just as a new aircraft cannot be in service without quantified integrity (737 Max notwithstanding), neither can even the simplest tech-enabled service. This integrity is not just an engineering but indeed an experiential quality, the brand’s role in the customer journey verified for inspiration and accuracy. Even a glorious me-too in a fast-growing category is perfectly doable as long as there is a tangible and ownable customer proposition. Ownable and not differentiable being the operating word, as it is clearly impossible to have non-replicable ingredients in this open-source world.
Also, a comeback of basic testing protocols from the legacy era to give the child a greater chance of success, instead of tech arrogance or founder’s hunch. Value proposition audits can actually become proprietary tools of consultants, whether agency or management, to certify concepts prior to exposure. The power of data analytics suitably unleashed to ensure that credible surrogates can be scanned, deemed failures eliminated through timely abortion. Finally, and most wishfully, agencies accepting only such certified briefs for conversion to communications, as a believable baton in the value chain.
The post-corona world will be more demanding cynical than ever before —tangible performance of brands under scathing scrutiny. Thus, a sincere request to every business owner and CMO — first get your product right and only then advertise. Creative folks can be magical, but they are not magicians — good advertising will only hasten the decline of a bad product.
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