‘How can I help you?’ It’s time that marketing became useful | M&M Global

‘How can I help you?’ It’s time that marketing became useful

Identify the role your brand can, and more importantly cannot, play in meeting consumer needs and wants, writes Sanjay Nazerali.


Most marketers have a strong belief that branding matters, that it is this intangible thing that adds value. There are even studies trying to measure the importance of the intangible apart from the infrastructure and assets. Plus, everyone has a point of view on how to build the brand.

However, something has happened over the last few years that discredits the ways and means that we have built brands for the last 50 years.

The decline of trust in institutions, paired with the rise of social media, has changed the role of the brand. If branding is so important, how do we reconcile successes like Airbnb, Netflix, Uber, Dollar Shave Club, Amazon, or even Google, Alibaba and Facebook in their earlier days?

Few of these highly valued brands depended on advertising, traditional design, or well-scripted messaging to get where they are today. Granted, most have now started investing in their image more, but only after they were successful businesses playing a significant and useful role in people’s lives. This is because they understood the importance of standing out from competitors by helping out consumers, in order to deliver business success and brand difference.

Scale before returns

Unicorn businesses drive scale before reaping returns. Their success depends on them being useful to many before seeking returns – sometimes three or more years after launch. The scale is crucial to the success.

This long-term look at business ventures is a new approach for a world dominated by the ‘cut costs and return a profit’ Wall Street and City mentality pervasive in the eighties and nineties.

This new approach to building digital-savvy businesses is great if your clients are those brands with significant investments and little immediate accountability for returns. However, what if your brand is a potential dinosaur? How do we help a struggling brand that was born before the internet existed, adapt to this new economy?

One answer is to make marketing useful.

Endless studies of so-called Millennials show that consumers expect brands to make a contribution to their lives. In this context, a brand could try to create a useful service, rather than an ad, to drive its marketing. In doing so, trust becomes less elusive: we’re not asking consumers to have faith in us, we’re asking them simply to experience our utility.

Social Media was derived from the idea that we could use our trusted networks as a source of information. Today, the largest video network in the world – YouTube – has 211 million videos starting with the phrase ‘how to’, and that’s not counting the millions of useful videos uploaded with differing titles (like ‘do it yourself’), and in differing languages.

A recent study by Google found that three in five mums use YouTube daily for answering questions, primarily looking for ‘how to’ and ‘DIY’ answers. Today, to be useful, can be a truly powerful brand purpose.

When nature calls

Let’s imagine for a moment a scenario. Let’s say you are the most functional product imaginable – toilet paper. Procter & Gamble has long realised that there is no more important utility than to be at hand when nature calls. And so it built the Sit or Squat app – a free service for helping people find the nearest, clean, restroom. If you’ve ever spent much time in American cities, especially New York, you will know that finding a nice restroom can be a challenge.

Whilst this app may seem comical, it serves a real business purpose for Charmin – build brand saliency and trust by delivering much-needed and on-brand utility.

We see that many brands are starting to think more about usefulness over overt advertising – from Domino’s pizza emoticon ordering on Twitter, to Amazon’s dash buttons for quick reordering of household products.

So how does a company find a useful role to play in consumers’ lives, when marketing has focused on pushing traditional advertising at people? Identify how you can help the consumers you want. The answer is to find the confluence of, one, what consumers need and aren’t getting from anyone else, and, two, what the brand can legitimately and authentically offer.

Find out what people want and need. For example, use all forms of digital data – from search to social listening – to identify the unmet needs that can work in your business’ favour. What are the consumers saying? What content are they sharing? What are they looking for in Search? What do they seem to want that doesn’t exist already?

Next, identify the role your brand can, and more importantly cannot, play in meeting those needs and wants. It is a disarmingly simple question, but one which brands increasingly need to ask if they are to have a right to play and win in the digital economy: how can we help?

Sanjay Nazerali

Chief strategy officer, Carat Global

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