We're living in funky times¹.
In the wild market economy it's increasingly difficult to differentiate. If you think about it, most of what your business or organisation does could be provided by someone else who is found in the Yellow Pages or by an internet search engine. Scary, isn't it.
If you have a unique idea your competitors will steal it in two or three weeks. With 3bn people in the process of building lives and societies similar to our own, competitive pressures are reaching boiling point. If it's too hot for you, you'd better get out of the kitchen.
Innovation and creativity are now more important than ever as a key to competitive advantage, whether you happen to live in the public sector, the private sector or pre-pub sector. It doesn't matter. The rules are the same. There's no hiding place.
But finding or creating something that the world has never seen before, which is both unique and uniquely competitive, can elude most of us in our working lives. It's a bit like being chosen to appear on ITV1's 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire?', answering every question that Chris Tarrant throws at you without ever once asking the audience or calling a friend (forget 50:50 -- that's for losers) and taking home a cheque for £1m at the end of the evening. OK, now wake up.
Whatever and whoever you may wish to communicate with - you can't escape from the need to do this in a way that's compelling. Engaging. Relevant. Rewarding. Different.
You're fighting for attention. This column is fighting for attention. I'm fighting for attention. It's less about value for money and more about value for time.
In old currency, time is money. Now that's taken on greater significance and meaning. You and I are time challenged beyond belief. And it's getting worse by the day. By the hour. By the minute.
The days of high demand and limited supply are over. We're no longer competing to see who can build the factories that'll supply the world. It's a new game in town. A game in which the limited supply is attention, not factories².
As communicators we need to deal with this state of affairs. We're expected to be unique in new ways. Can you remember how it used to be?
The old way was to add a few bells and whistles. Old wine in a new bottle. New improved formula. Better taste. New improved recipe. Can't Believe It's Not Butter! Money off. No need to pay for three years. Interest free. Fat free. I'm free! Low fat. Half fat. No fat. Low tar... Blah blah blah.
Well, we've heard it all before. Seen it all before. And done it all before. And even if we haven't, it feels as if we have³.
Wake up. The old ways don't work anymore. And I'm not sure they ever did. You'll be copied in a matter of days -- even hours -- and consumers aren't easily fooled. Nor is my mum. Or for that matter my 12 months old daughter who can tell the difference between water and milk even after one week's life experience.
It's a fact that organisations, services and products look increasingly similar. Take a walk down your local high street or pop into any car showroom. Even take the Pepsi challenge.
For example, what's the difference between a comparably priced Citroen and Renault? Even TV advertising is making it harder, not easier, for us to tell the difference.
Is this really what it's come down to? Homogeneity of products? Homogeneity of service? Homogeneity of choice? No, of course not, you say.
So why then does most marketing communication fail? And fail miserably?
Well for one thing, there's fragmentation of media. Television, cable, satellite, cinema, video-on-demand, Tivo, radio, CDs, PDAs, CDROMs, DVDs, internet, extranet, intranet, fishing net(!), ambient media, press, 48-sheet posters, fly posting, on-pack, point-of-sale, direct mail, snail mail, etc etc etc and, of course, not forgetting the ubiquitous mobile, WAP, 2.5G and soon to join 3G.
So which channel or channels do we need to use? Which is more effective in getting our message across? What's more cost effective? What's actually going to influence and change behaviour? How will we know if it's worked?
For too long, we've been using logic as a way of discovering the answers. To some extent, being rational is useful. That's what gets market researchers out of bed every morning. When in doubt, use statistics. Even better, add graphs and tell the world it's statistically relevant.
Trouble is -- it probably isn't that relevant. It's historical. It's out of date.
Differentiation is about innovation and creativity. It's about leading, not following. It's about risk taking. And that's got more to do with the emotional than the rational side of our brains.
The parallel force of fragmentation of media is fragmentation of audience.
Unlike the 73 bus route from Putney to Knightsbridge, audiences don't tend to show up like buses -- en masse. Advertisers have learnt the hard way. National newspaper readership is in a very slow but steady decline4. So too is Premiership football and Formula 1 as popular TV spectator sports. Who would've thought, eh?
Even British media giants Granada and Carlton have had to wake up to this fact that we're not always switched on and tuned in. So the advertisers want to pay less for air time. And who can blame them?
Being a media owner is no longer a license to print money as it was when there were fewer choices and Tony Blackburn was King of the Pops.
The appointment-to-view is a distant memory as we move towards the paradigm of self-service everything. Consume what you want, when you want and how you want. Twenty four-seven. It's shopping and fucking5.
For example, EasyJet and Ryanair are fantastically successful because they understand these changes and know how to make money out of them. No queues. Tickets print from the click of a mouse. Oh, and bring your own themos and sandwiches when you arrive at the airport. Why should you be forced to eat plastic tasting airline food?
It's sometimes very difficult to see past these discontinuities as it would be for a nine-year-old boy to imagine being 15. He can easily envisage being 10, and he may dream about 12, but it's virtually impossible for him to plan on what his life will be like when his hormones kick in. Hormones are a discontinuity.
We're living in the age of accelerating discontinuities, as predicted more than 30 years ago6 -- and there's an increasing gulf between people and brands. And the longer this goes on, the harder it is for the old school marketing communication aficionados to succeed.
Information is perishable and brand loyalty is almost consigned to the rubbish bin of history. Brands are fast becoming 'The Weakest Link'. Goodbye.
As the pace of change becomes so much faster our relationships become much more temporary. As a result consumers are far more promiscuous.
This disconnection between consumers and brands is further fuelled by what's known as vicarious living.
This is the world you and I now live in where there's so much choice and information and so many different experiences which we believe we had but in fact we hadn't -- travel programmes and cookery shows on TV can take us to the further hemisphere and demonstrate the perfect dinner party dish -- but did we actually experience this and can we remember why we remember?
For many, marketing communication is about mass communication. McDonalds and Coca-Cola made it an art form. Yet in today's increasingly complex world of one-to-one communication7, mass communication is a blunt instrument -- a bit like those exhibits in an anthropological museum about Neolithic man.
Some communicators are stuck in a kind of time warp. It's like watching re-runs of 'Dr Who' on cable TV. This is meant to be about the future but why is Dr Who still wearing that enormous scarf?
Today's intergalactic battlefield isn't the size of the engine or the multi-stack CD player in the boot of a car. It's the design, the warranty, the after-sales service, and the finance package. Intelligence and intangibles. And of course, the people we interact with before, during and after we've made the purchase.
You can't survive today by interrupting strangers with a message they don't want to receive, about a product or service they've never heard of, using methods that annoy the hell out of them.
Well you can, but it ain't going to work. And you won't make money out of it.
Consumers have too little time and too much power to stand for this behaviour anymore.
The revolution has arrived.
Consumers are now the hunters rather than the hunted or as we once liked to describe them -- 'targets'. Ouch!
We've been dis-intermediated, which is a polite way of saying that consumers can cut out the middleman and anyone else for that matter.
In fact, unless we earn the trust and confidence of consumers, then no matter what we say or do won't matter a bean.
The backlash against brand owners that show little respect or actually contempt for the views and feelings of consumers is now a global movement. And it's getting stronger every year8.
In order to succeed, we must now start to understand the fragmented society.
Gen Y feels the need to belong to and associate with a certain group of people. This isn't homogenised. Standardised. Or commoditised. And so neither should marketing communication.
This has to be an understanding of motivation and behaviour.
On a one-to-one basis.
Mass marketing and communication just doesn't work as well as it used to.
At the end of the day, it's getting close to consumers and understanding their dreams that counts.
It separates tomorrow's leaders and followers.
And I'd know which I'd rather be. Merry Christmas!
1. Jonas Ridderstråle and Kjell Nordström Funky Business, BookHouse Publishing AB, Stockholm, Sweden (2000)
2. Seth Godin, Permission Marketing, Do You Zoom, US (1999)
3. Pine and Gilmore, The Experience Economy, Harvard Business School Press, US (1999)
4. Audit Bureau of Circulation (2002)
5. A phrase created by controversial British playwright Mark Ravenhill from the play Shopping and Fucking.
6. Alvin Toffler, Future Shock, Pan Books, US (1970)
7. Don Peppers & Martha Rogers, One-to-One Future, Piatkus, US (1999)
8. Naomi Klein, No Logo, Random House, US (2000)
Ardi Kolah is author of 'Essential Law for Marketers' (Butterworth Heinemann, £25). Order it online here.
This article was first published on brandrepublic.com