The Day Advertising Died and Marketing’s New Era Dawned

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On Thursday, April 23, 2020, the convergence of media, brands and culture changed everything for good. Epic Games, Fortnite and Travis Scott, along with other behind-the-scenes partners and collaborators, came together around the rapper’s first virtual concert on the gaming platform.

Those of us developing the project realized it was way more powerful than any traditional ads those brands could run. It was the perfect illustration that advertising—or marketing as we’ve known it—is no more.

The success (a record-breaking 28 million viewers) of that unlikely confluence was not built on a high-profile ad campaign. It was centered around a deeper understanding of content, media and evolving fan experiences. Yes, people have been pumping up content for a while. But the level at which content and multiple media now collide is so powerful that we must move our thinking past the ad-driven campaign. We need to do a complete about-face.

Don’t get me wrong. The ad still has a wonderfully relevant role to play. We’re all inundated by videos on a daily basis and often find ourselves locked into 30- or 90-second spots. So, I’m not talking about that asset per se. But rather the monolith of advertising. The whole structural framework of agencies spending six months of writing and casting a spot—only for it to be forgotten the minute it airs.

Building in flexibility

Today, we need idea engines, with an approach that is more nimble and flexible. It’s about generating content grounded in brand purpose. Then you need to activate that content on the right platform, and this can manifest as anything from a 6-second pre-roll, a 3-minute video on YouTube, a 30-second spot on IG stories, a minute-long influencer play on TikTok—or a live-streamed, multi-brand collaboration that attracts millions of fans. That’s what a real “campaign” is now.

This mindset explains how fast-food chain Wendy’s turned its nimbleness and aptitude for witty put-downs into the annual #NationalRoastDay on Twitter. The made-up social media holiday sees individuals and competitor brands line up for a tongue-in-cheek roasting in a perfectly pitched piece of storytelling.

Or take Gucci’s faux-vandalizing of Balenciaga’s storefronts. The Gucci graffiti tags were part of a collaboration between the two luxe fashion leaders that explored “ideas of authenticity and appropriation,” a topic that has remained at the forefront of cultural conversation over the past year. The two brands merged their core assets in a striking way, providing novel, though-provoking content to their shared audience.

Switching the protagonist

The key in this post-advertising era is an important change in attitude and mindset—away from the product or brand as protagonist. Now, we must cast consumers in starring roles. If you put consumers at the center of your communications, you’re giving them something relevant for their life and culture. Brands need to look at media, culture and storytelling from a users’ perspective.

Red Bull is a prime example. It has morphed from a niche energy drink into a global purveyor of entertainment. But if you want to emulate this, you have to throw out every traditional marketing framework you’ve previously held dear. You need people willing to stir things up and encourage an organization that can work in real time. The quicker businesses can become proactive and react, the better.

Shaking things up

And this applies to every brand—just because you’re in some low-profile category doesn’t mean you can’t come up with stuff that will catch people’s interest. Red Bull might be a poster child, but the likes of global CPG owner Reckitt are also turning business models on their head. At Reckitt, its in-house brand experience team has been moving toward a service-led model. Such companies are no longer CPGs, they are service providers. Another example is Casper. Positioning itself beyond mattresses as “the sleep company,” it has awakened the category by promising to deliver more than just the product.

Thinking about service and experience in this way, with the consumer at the heart, is crucial for brands to reach their potential. And it is telling that many of the brands that travel this route successfully are run by designers or have C-suite level personalities that champion design.

It will take commitment and an internal entrepreneurial mindset to shake things up. Brands, media and consumers will reap the benefits.

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