Don’t look to the future – it’s right here

As marketers, we all try to grasp what the future holds. What will people want, need and be motivated and influenced by?

One of my fellow directors, Jim Antonopoulos, took an in-depth look at this question at one of Tank’s industry briefings and kindly let me share his thoughts for my final article for the year.

Jim believes the future isn’t in front of us, it’s in the people that we are trying to connect with – our audience. It’s how they consume media and how they connect with one another. That’s where the future lies.

So how can your organisation remain relevant to your audience – and continue to reach them?

Utility and meaning

The old rules of broadcast messaging are pretty much over. It’s still branding but building a brand is not a linear progression anymore. We don’t start at A, go to B and then traverse all the way through to Z. There’s many ways to get there.

Strong brands create usefulness. They create utility in our lives and they give us something genuinely meaningful. Ultimately, they provide value.

A great example of this is the million program.

A little while ago, the New York education system was failing, kids were dropping out and attendance was low. So, the New York education department approached a creative agency in the hope that they would help them solve this problem. They created the million, where a million kids in the schooling system were given a mobile phone that was locked. Based on the amount of points received from teachers – awarded for attendance, behaviour, participation, homework and grades – various features of the phone were unlocked such as downloads, calls and text messages.

This simple idea engaged with students like never before. It’s a great example of utility and meaning, but also of lateral thinking to solve a real problem.

Get out of the building

A simple truth is that people don’t really care about your brand all of the time. Especially in today’s connected world.

At home, your audience is currently bombarded with one-way messages from television, radio and other traditional media like magazines and books. And then there’s interactive messages from their screen based devices like XBox’s and iPad’s.

How can your brand cut through all of this to truly connect – and build better communications for your audience?

You must get out of the building. You must develop your ideas but then go out and talk and listen and learn and experience with the audience that you’re trying to connect with. You have to get out of the building and visit them and listen to them. You have to wear their shoes. You also have to get feedback, come back and adapt your ideas.

So essentially we all have to immerse ourselves in culture to truly understand the consumer. We have to become part of the culture and not just passive observers of it; but actively contribute to it. We have to help our audience do what they’re already doing.

Take snowboarding apparel brand Burton. They could see that there was already a captive audience who loved competing against each other in the casual snowboarding community – competing on who could jump higher, or go faster. Burton teamed up with Nokia and became part of this competitive culture by helping snowboarders get more out of their sport and have fun whilst doing so.

Technology was weaved into the clothing that synched with the smartphones, monitoring heart rate, speed, and orientation of the board and its rider. It all tied into a scoring system that enabled snowboarders to compete on another level, and immerse themselves in the data that was coming from their clothes. Burton didn’t interrupt that culture, they truly became part of it, and in so doing, increased their brand cut-through, loyalty and knowledge of their audience.

Light lots of small fires

How do you create content that has meaning and is sharable? The answer is to light lots of small fires.

You have to create an eco system of usefulness and value in your customer’s lives, rather than pooling all of your marketing budgets into one approach and hope that has massive impact.

In 2008, Coca-Cola ran eight individual marketing activities at the Olympics. In 2012, they ran over 250 marketing activities for the same budget. They lit lots of small fires, they changed course really quickly, and they were nimble and more agile – and far more effective.

Be part of the experience

In the products and services you’re creating, you have to ask yourself: how can my brand become part of the experience? How will the audience connect with what you’re offering and feel like they are getting real value?

One of the answers is to create long term engagement by owning the experience your brand specialises in. Sporting clubs do this really well. The AFL’s Auskick program is a prime example.

You need to give the audience something to believe in that’s meaningful and true to their needs. And you need to do it in many different ways – improving, learning and adapting along the way.

If you get this right, then your audience is likely to stay loyal to the brand regardless of the many messages and connections that influence them with every day.

Be yourself – everybody else is taken

To break out of the category norm – don’t just do what everyone else is doing, or what you think is expected of your organisation. Be useful. Be meaningful.

You can start by asking yourself these four questions of your brand.

  1. How can we create members not followers – there’s a distinct difference?
  2. How do we create loyalty nobody can take away?
  3. How do we embed ourselves in culture?
  4. And finally, how do we deliver on our brand promise?


In the meantime, light lots of small fires, get out of the building, adapt to your audience’s needs and above all, aim to be both useful and meaningful in your communications.


Richard Foster
BY Richard Foster ON 17 December 2013
Richard Foster is the head of writing at Melbourne branding agency TANK. Richard’s focus is helping organisations find clarity and meaning in their written and spoken communications. For more information visit