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Ritson on brand: I’m not lovin’ it

Technology & Data

Ritson on brand: I’m not lovin’ it


Mark Ritson’s had enough of brands trying to be loveable.

This article first appeared in The Love Issue, our June/July 2016 edition of Marketing magazine.


Issue badge Love IssueIt probably sounds a little strange, but once upon a time it was very difficult to get consumers to feel anything for brands. In those early monochrome days of marketing, the prototypical brand manager had to use spokespeople and created identities to represent brands because garnering any kind of emotional response for products and brands was all but impossible.

Betty Crocker was created to help US consumers connect with Pillsbury, while here in Australia Little Audrey the Vinegar girl was more than just a popular night-time illumination; she was the face of a brand that would otherwise have struggled to make any kind of connection with its target market.

And it worked. Gradually, as the consumer culture of the 20th century emerged and evolved, consumers became more comfortable with having thoughts and feelings about brands as well as people. The language of marketing became increasingly anthropomorphic. We began to use concepts like brand ‘loyalty’, customer ‘relationships’ and ‘emotional’ responses to describe how the market engaged with brands.

While these concepts seem entirely natural today, even Don Draper would have raised a martini infused eyebrow had they been mentioned back in the 1950s.

So it was perhaps entirely predictable that, as we entered the gleaming new century, the humanisation of brands would continue apace. Kevin Roberts’ ‘Lovemarks’ concept took the whole mission of marketing into a new, unexplored direction because it positioned brands as being at the centre of a consumer’s world. The new objective for brand managers – beyond loyalty or affection – was to create a brand that consumers could not live without.

We have now reached the zenith of this emotional quest with the concept of brand purpose. If the ‘Lovemarks’ concept was designed to elevate Starbucks to a level where consumers could not drink any other coffee, the school of brand purpose told consumers to accept that Starbucks could guide their existential quest.

Brands were no longer about consumption; that was merely a means to the greater end of guiding our whole philosophical worldview.

Related: In our April/May issue, Ritson said marketers were being fed bullshit about social media »

Starbuck’s brand mission is not to make good coffee; it is to ‘inspire the human spirit’. Coca-Cola is no longer on mission to simply refresh you; it now sees itself as responsible for ‘inspiring moments of happiness’. Similarly, McDonald’s mission is more than simply fast food; instead burgers are merely a catalyst to allow it to oppose ‘all the negativity that surrounds daily life’ and to ‘celebrate lovin’ more’.

But the problem with this love quest that brands have been on for the last 75 years is that it has all become just a little bit nonsensical. At some point we migrated from the justifiable aim of increasing involvement in our brands to thinking that our brands are at the epicentre of the consumer’s universe and show them how to live their life. Patently, the whole concept of brand purpose is moronic. I do not want Starbucks telling me about race relations and world peace – I want it to serve me a decent coffee in pleasant locations. I care about race equality, deeply, but I do not trust a giant corporation with an extremely spotty reputation for paying its taxes telling me what to think.

While I obviously want to love life and enjoy my time on the planet, I do not need McDonald’s helping me work this out – especially given the less than lovin’ way I think it treats its zero-hours employees and factory farmed animals.

Brands are in no position to offer us purpose.

If I make this point to consumers, I get vigorous head nodding and a ‘that’s obvious’ response. But try telling marketers that brand purpose is horseshit and you get guffaws and immediate leg crossing. Today’s generation of marketers are an unusual bunch. Most of them are not just interested in marketing their products; they want to make a difference. That’s admirable but entirely impossible if you see yourself as selling a vaguely addictive overpriced morning stimulant (Starbucks), dead mass-farmed cows and chickens in a bun (McDonald’s) or a sugar water with the kind of calorie load that will send you to an early grave (Coke).

Brand purpose is a way that marketers at these companies and others can convince themselves that they are doing this for more than just the money and the status. It’s the way that a new generation of more caring and conscientious people can reconcile their ethics and aspiration with the mundane mission of selling stuff to people.

It’s a fabulous way for marketers to tell themselves that they do more than marketing.

There is no better place to study the misalignment of marketer and market than social media. Most Australian organisations have embarked upon major strategic journeys to attract followers, engage them with content and ultimately have conversations with them. Is there a more perfect example of anthropomorphic thinking than a brand conversing with its consumers as equals?

But the reality of this conversation is that it has never actually taken place. According to my own 2016 research with the Online Research unit and the findings from a Nielsen survey in 2015 – do you know how many brands the average Australian actively follows on social media?

One. Just one.

And two-thirds of Australians do not follow any at all.

That statistic is mind blowing for marketers, but common sense for consumers who hear it, nod and say – ‘yup, that’s me’. That huge disparity in response should trouble marketers. We are meant to be the ones that understand consumers and bring that understanding into the organisation. But in recent years this obsession with brand love, brand purpose and social media has led to an entirely ridiculous overestimation of the importance of brands in the lives of our consumers and has left marketing in a dangerously out of touch place.

It’s a place where we really think consumers love our brands. Where brand purpose inspires and motivates them. Where conversations between brand and consumers are not just welcomed, but treasured. And it’s horseshit.

At some point between the first of a million skips from Audrey’s neon rope and coffee companies telling us how to make the world a better place, marketers lost the plot. It’s time to use data and good old-fashioned market orientation to re-centre our ambitions and lower the objectives for brands.

We need to find a less loving, more realistic place for brand strategy.


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Mark Ritson writes a regular column on brand in Marketing magazine. Purchase a subscription and be the first to read it!

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Mark Ritson

Professor Mark Ritson is an internationally renowned marketing consultant and teaches marketing and brand management on MBA programs at London Business School, MIT Sloan, the University of Minnesota, Singapore Management University and Melbourne Business School. Tweet him at @markritson.

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