An inconvenient conflict? Branding versus culture



Culture moves at the speed of our machines

It took a full seventeen days for news of Nelson’s victory in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar to reach London. The news had travelled at 2.7mph.

News of the 1891 Nobi Earthquake in Japan travelled at 246mph, taking one day to reach London.

And in 2008 it took just one minute for news of the Sichuan earthquake to reach - London, travelling at 204,000mph.

The Wright brothers’ first flight in 1903 reached 6.82mph.

Less than ten years later the Air Speed record had risen to 68.171mph with Alfred Leblanc’s flight.

By 1948 the record had reached 670mph.

Eleven years later the record stood at 2,193.2mph.

Aldous Huxley might have been right in his claim that speed really is the only pleasure invented by modernity.

Indeed the evidence is everywhere that the metabolism of our culture has shifted fundamentally.

We consume, discard and move on faster than ever before. More passes through our eyes, hands, ears, mouths, stomachs, and minds at a faster rate than ever before.

A river of novelty and sensation runs through our culture and through us as individuals.

And everywhere we look, we can find evidence of that speed and immediacy is not merely a phenomenon of our modern times, but has become an everyday expectation. We inhabit a culture that increasingly expects swift delivery and instant gratification.

Thus we have instant home loans. Instant tans. Instant messaging. Instant coffee. Instant approvals. Instant downloads. Instant replays. Instant results.

When the doors don’t close quickly enough, or it doesn’t arrive faster enough, we punch impatiently at the elevator button. We sound our horns as soon as the traffic light turns from red to green. We harrumph with exasperation when our transatlantic flight’s departure is delayed by twenty minutes. We drum our fingers on the counter while our allegedly ‘fast’ food is being prepared.

We’ve come to expect things so quickly that we can’t wait more than a few seconds for a video to load. Krishnan and Sitaraman’s analysis of the impact of video stream quality on viewer behavior reveals that viewers start to abandon a video if it takes more than 2 seconds to start up, with each incremental delay of 1 second resulting in a 5.8% increase in the abandonment rate. This means that after five seconds, the abandonment rate is 25%. And after 10 seconds, half are gone.

The decline in Americans’ personal personal saving rates — the percentage of disposable income save - has been much documented and commented upon. Back in December 1982, American’s saved 9.7%. By December 2012 it had declined to 3.6%. A whole gamut of reasons have been suggested for the decline, but one must wonder whether our growing focus on immediacy has also played a role.

Even the lag between buying online and waiting for delivery is demolished. As the author and cultural commentator Douglas Rushkoff has noted, the new incarnations of consumer goods and services “are successively less tangible, reducing the friction associated with purchasing, using, and disposing of real objects... As if coming full circle to the era of lords and vassals, we no longer own the land at all but simply pay for the right to use it”.

And of course in Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, SMS, we have our own, personal infrastructure of delivery and immediacy, our own always on, instant news channels that enable us to distribute and consume content, whether it’s home-made, bought, borrowed, or stolen.

Surveying this, our culture of immediacy, the sociologist Professor John Tomlinson argues that we are witnessing the closing of “certain separations that have historically defined the terms of human culture..."

And indeed wherever we look, delay and distance is being squeezed out of our culture and lives. We are witnessing the closing of the gap between the departure and arrival of anything. Between ignorance and knowledge. Between knowledge and experience. Between wanting and acquiring. Between acquiring and consuming.

As the gaps become compressed, so too does the gap between the past and the future. As if inhabiting some kind of rolling CNN news story, in a culture of immediacy we increasingly find ourselves living in one long, continuous present-tense. One, long Right Now.

Of course this culture offers us thrills, satisfactions, gratifications, pleasures, benefits, and advantages aplenty. And it isn’t just the ephemeral, the disposable, and the inconsequential that fills so much of consumer culture that has become accelerated. After all, we can can get informed and smarter faster. And we can deliver life-saving medicines faster.

But while there is much good to be had, and much to be thankful for in this, our culture of immediacy, the mechanics of effective branding run counter to the drift of culture.

For while our culture's metabolism has accelerated, the means by which sustainable growth is created has not.

Sustainable memory-building takes time

To be found, considered, chosen, bought and consumed, brands rely on the creation of memory structures.

William Moran characterized this as the creation of ‘mental presence’ - what some refer to as ‘salience’ or ‘mental availability’.

Definitions of what exactly this constitutes abound, but Moran’s is pithily useful: “The degree to which a given brand comes to consumers’ minds in the context of a particular purchase occasion or consumption occasion.”

Clearly this is more than just top of mind awareness. To “come to mind” in purchase or consumption situations demands both quantity and quality of brand memories.

Quantity refers to the number of associations a buyer has about a brand, while quality refers to both the strength of the association and the relevance of that memory to the buying or consumption situation.

Of course what we call memories are connections between neurons. The more connections there are, the more memories there are. And the stronger the connection, the stronger the memory.

To create strong connections between neurons requires repetition. Robert Heath has characterized the process as one of repeatedly walking a path in the grass. Every journey we take on it makes the path more visible, more enduring.

In other words it takes time.

Thus, Coca-Cola is imbued the world over with associations of happiness because for 125 years it has one way or another talked about, celebrated and brought to life one thing.

There is another dimension to the act of repetition that we cannot ignore,

Professor Daniel Kahnemann's work has shown how repetition makes things true. As he puts it “A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact.”

The impatient marketer might look for ‘reasons to believe’, but psychology teaches us that saying a thing - repeatedly - makes it so.

Sustainable business growth takes time

And if creating enduing memory takes time, so too do the business effects of advertising.

In The Long And The Short Of It: Balancing Short- And Long-Term Marketing Strategies, Les Binet and Peter Field report on their of analysis of the IPA Effectiveness Databank. The data held therein is the product of 30 years of the IPA effectiveness Awards - numbering some 996 campaigns, for 700 brands in over 80 categories.

Their analysis makes it clear that (contrast to our culture of immediacy) advertising’s ability to create value is most keenly felt in the long-term:

The total number of business effects rises steadily as the campaign length increases... This is largely as one would expect: the longer a campaign runs, the more investment has been put behind it and the more time it has to generate effects.

This picture is replicated with the profit metric, though with a notably greater increase between 1 and 2-year campaigns."

Most profitable of all are campaigns that drive both volume and pricing... Their principle characteristic is that incremental volume is achieved whilst strengthening margin."

No 3-month campaigns report major pricing effects."

Volume effects are quick to achieve but pricing effects take much longer."

The creation of memory, brands, and business growth takes time. And as such it is, like it or not, at odds with one of the defining characteristics of our age.

This is not to deny the value of brands being responsive in the here and now. Or the value of a brand demonstrating its currency, of surfing the ever-changing waves, fads and currents of popular culture. Or of providing short-term bursts of interest and fame.

Nor is this to suggest that there is no value in short-term activity. As Binet and Field comment:

The IPA data suggests that the optimum balance of brand and activation expenditure is on average around 60:40, though this may vary by category and is driven by how category expenditure divides (typically 60:40): the objective is to achieve equal share of voice within brand and activation.”

Direct campaigns [campaigns that use immediate behavioral triggers] work most efficiently over short time frames...  They are essential for short-term sales efficiency. But direct campaigns are not efficient drivers of long-term growth (over 3+ years).”

That said, simply delivering short-term activity does not lead to success in the long term. As Binet and Field observe:

The way in which long-term effects are generated is fundamentally different from how most short-term effects are produced. Although long-term effects always produce some short-term effects, the reverse is not true and long-term effects are not simply an accumulation of short-term effects.”

So however much it may be the spirit (for better and for worse) of our times, we cannot allow our expectation of immediate delivery and satisfaction undermine our ability to deliver value.

Immediacy in adland

Yet symptoms of impatience are already to be found. We probably should not be surprised. After all only hermits, the psychopathic and the sociopathic are truly immune from the drift of culture.

Thus we see that the ability to deliver realtime marketing content can lead to the demand for realtime results.

The abundance of highly responsive communications metrics that digital interactions generate can lead to the assumption that success is to be found in the here and now.

The demand for immediate (job, decision and budget) justification can lead to short-term effects being passed of  or taken to be the same as effectiveness (there is a difference).

The expectation of immediate change leads researchers and their methodologies to  ignore the multiplying effects of time and repetition.

The demand for rapid career advancement leads to job tenures in the corporation that are too short to see real, meaningful business growth.

So where does this leave us?

Brand building does not move at the speed of culture

The metabolism of our culture continues to accelerate.

But  - and the evidence is clear on this - the metabolism of sustainable growth has not.

So building successful brands will as it has always done, continue to take time.

In the preface to his book Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff (who could hardly be called a Luddite) warns us that:

“Our society has reoriented itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real time, and always on. It’s not a a mere speeding up, however much our lifestyles and technologies have accelerated the rate at which we attempt to do things. It’s more of a diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now - and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.”

Ensuring that we do not fall victim to the diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now it will demand of us a degree of fortitude. It will take a new degree of vigilance. It will require a determination not to give in to the expectation or demand of immediate delivery and satisfaction.

However much that may surround (and indeed delight us) us in our personal lives.


Les Binet and Peter Field, The Long And The Short Of It: Balancing Short- And Long-Term Marketing Strategies

S. Shunmuga Krishnan and Ramesh K. Sitaraman, ‘Video Stream Quality Impacts Viewer Behavior: Inferring Causality Using Quasi-Experimental Designs’

William Moran, 'Brand Presence And The Perceptual Frame', Journal of Advertising Research, October/November 1990

Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now

Michael Stillwell, A Farewell To Alms: A Brief Economic History Of The World

John Tomlinson, The Culture Of Speed: The Coming Of Immediacy