Growing up in the Midlands in the 1970s – the “brown times” as novelist Jonathan Coe dubbed them – the brands that meant most to me were RCA (Elvis’s record label), the fizzy soft drink Vimto (friends nicknamed me ‘The Vimto kid’), Milky Way (the cheapest chocolate bar at the corner shop), Walkers’ cheese and onion crisps, the Subbuteo football game, Penguin Books and, er, the Liberal Party (partly out of a desire to be different and partly out of sympathy – they only had six MPs in 1970).

I also spent a disproportionate amount of my teenage years watching, thinking – and reading – about Leicester City. At that time, football supporters were never described as customers so it never occurred to me to regard the Foxes as a brand.

Fortysomething years later, some of those brands still mean a lot to me: Leicester City, RCA (well, Elvis really – though I do get nostalgic over the orange label on the singles), and Walkers Crisps. I still have some residual affection for Penguin, even though it published Albert Goldman’s anti-biography of Presley in 1981. In politics, I’ve become a tactical voter, motivated by antipathy towards one party than empathy with one I like.

Have I made room in my life for new brands? Not so many. I fell for Vanity Fair magazine in the 1980s but I can no longer bear to look at it since its 2018 redesign (for ‘redesign’ read ‘act of editorial vandalism’). I still relish the “quite remarkable” football magazine FourFourTwo, which I launched as editor back in 1994.

I like Marks & Spencer partly because I can buy clothes there without feeling uncool. I was devoted to Apple but, almost as soon as Steve Jobs’ innovative zeal was lost, it began to feel like any another company. I have become mysteriously reliant on Alta Rica coffee. I am on Twitter (@paulsimpsonHN, if you’re interested; if not, no worries), Facebook and Instagram but feel no particular bond to any of them.

One of the most enduring brands in my life is National Westminster Bank. I became a customer in 1979 and still am – even after they closed their local branch, putting a completely unintentional spin on their slogan “We are what we do”. That’s mainly down to sheer inertia. In that, I am not untypical: Britons change their spouses more often than they change their banks.

I am always wary of pundits who make an argument based on their own lives but I suspect the way I experience brands is not untypical either.

The 2019 survey of meaningful consumer brands by French media giant Havas, which tracked 1,800 brands with 350,000 respondents across 31 countries – found that consumers say they wouldn’t care if 77% of brands disappeared.

There are three likely explanations for this. The first – and most obvious – is that consumers are lying to the pollsters and quite possibly to themselves. The abstract possibility of their favourite coffee vanishing might not alarm them. Yet if they could no longer find it on any supermarket shelf, they would probably complain to the nearest shop worker.

That leads us to the second explanation: many of us don’t want to think about brands very often – if at all. We don’t have what the Australian academic Byron Sharp calls “mental availability”. And why would we? The only way we can get in and out of a supermarket in less than an hour is by screening out nearly all of the 30,000 brands on the shelves. In a similar vein, the average American household has access to 206 TV channels but only watches 20 of them a month.

Advocates of evolutionary psychology – once summed up in the headline “You can take the person out of the Stone Age, not the Stone Age out of the person” – believe this is reflects the way our brains have evolved. To put it crudely, a species’ brain grows larger the larger the size of the group, clan or community we belong to. Psychologist Robin Dunbar argues the human brain can only comfortably manage a group of 150 members, a capacity constraint that applies to other aspects of our lives.

The new marketing orthodoxy that what customers want most is personalised products, services or communications only applies to some of the people, some of the time. Even when we are online, many of us, like my neighbour with the “No junk mail” sign on his front door, regard any commercial communication as a personal affront. It’s helpful, in such situations, to remember what Bobby Kennedy said: “One-fifth of the people are against everything all of the time.”

If we are, as everyone says, becoming less loyal to brands, why would we want to interact with many of them? (Exception to the rule, based on my experience, we might with something we are passionate about: I love following a local painter and restorer Julian Bettney on Instagram.) In reality, as the American academic Andrew Ehrenberg said: “Your customers are customers of other brands who occasionally buy you.”

This does not mean it is impossible for brands to attract our attention. It probably does mean they should rethink the way they try to do it. The Havas survey found, for example, that 58% of global consumers felt brands delivered “poor and irrelevant content”.

In part, brands are suffering because other content producers – especially the makers of Games Of Thrones, Mad Men and Line Of Duty – have exponentially raised their game. Yet there is also, as advertising strategist Ian Leslie wrote in the Financial Times in 2015, a possibility that, seduced by the data-driven world of the Internet and social media, brands have lost the plot.

Leslie argues that brands are selling too aggressively, thinking too rationally and focusing too narrowly. He cites Pepsi’s decision, in 2010, to stop advertising on the Superbowl, the biggest night of the year on American TV, and plough the money into social media. The campaign met all its targets except one: it didn’t sell Pepsi. The market share for Pepsi and Diet Pepsi shrank by a calamitous 5% that year.

Although Leslie might sound like a Luddite he is really arguing that some of the traditional advertising rules still apply: “Mass marketing works, fame works and emotion works.” In his view, marketers ought to focus less on offering cherished customers a personal encounter with their brand and more on emotional feel good content like Coke’s classic 1971 campaign I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing.

This is not an argument for brands and their content providers to endlessly churning out warm, fuzzy stuff like I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing across print, television and online. It is an argument that brands and content providers recognise that emotional intelligence doesn’t just apply to the workplace, it influences the way we consume media.

I now can’t get I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing out of my head. Maybe that’s the point. Very much of its time, the advert suggested that, irrespective of whether you lived in Bangladesh, Belgium or Brazil, you weren’t just buying a soft drink you were becoming a member of a perfectly harmonious global family.

That proposition is completely illogical – and that’s the beauty of it. A similar vibe is reflected in Brewdog’s new advertising campaign. The edgy brewer’s bus poster reads “Advert on a bus”. That’s Brewdog’s way of saying: “We’re cool and, if you get it, so are you”.

That is a much more compelling message than insisting that beer X tastes better than beer Y. As brand guru Giles Pearman likes to say: better is comparative, subjective, fleeting and, ultimately, not that exciting. Creating content that feels different and distinctive could well be a more effective way of tapping into our limited “mental availability”.

Back in the 1980s, Jobs emphatically proved that very point with Apple’s Think Different advertising campaign. It takes some nerve to appropriate Mahatma Gandhi, Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein to sell a shedload of computers. But it worked, despite the fact that Apple’s other exemplars of originality included Bryan Adams and Richard Clayderman.

Were Apple Macintoshes better than IBM’s PC? Probably not.
Were they more desirable? You bet.


Image courtesy of Bloomberg/Getty Images


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