Back in the heyday of advertising, David Ogilvy – one of the grandfathers of our industry, stated “We sell – or else.” By this he meant advertisements needed to capture attention, they needed to resonate with an audience, they needed to make someone smile, laugh and cry, but most importantly they needed to sell. If an ad did all the above and didn’t sell, it was a failure.
There is some talk going on right now discussing whether or not this is still the case. Maybe there is more to marketing and advertising than just selling? Maybe in the 21st century companies survive on more than sales? Well let me tell you that this is not the case. If we don't sell, we don't eat. Period.
Marketers, advertisers, digital branders are all entrusted by their clients or companies to move product. If that doesn’t happen, the lights turn off and everyone goes home. Now I deeply believe that great marketers are great artists, and that’s because they are creators who can enthrall as well as command action.
Our art is selling in a way that inspires more than just buying.
“Belief Economy” Is a New Perspective on Regular Old Branding
“Belief economy” seems to be the buzzword triggering our industry’s current introspection. It’s the idea that modern day consumers, millennials in particular, only buy from companies that match their philosophical, ethical or political beliefs. Therefore companies need to do more than just sell; they need to have a purpose and mission that is bigger than their bottom line.
This is a very astute observation, but it is not a new one. This is why for decades companies have committed billions of dollars annually to develop brand images and stories that resonate with buyers. We’ve always operated in a belief economy – it's the beliefs that have changed, not the economy.
Before going down the rabbit hole proselytizing why we need to tattoo “We sell – or else” on our forearms, let’s talk a bit about why resonating with consumer beliefs is an essential part of our jobs today.
The market place is oversaturated with a littering of products in every category. We’re rotten with things. I mean, there are a thousand different headphones out there. Are those headphones really better than these headphones? Who really knows anymore? Everything that is made, each service that is provided, has an entourage of identical competitors saying the same thing in every different way they can think of. So in a “belief economy” we have to create stories and brands that help people believe our products transcend the transaction.
It also helps to work for companies where that is actually true.
The product itself is sometimes the least important aspect of the transactional equation. Unique selling propositions no longer have to do with what the product is, but how it was made and what the company is going to do after a purchase. Think TOMS, Warby Parker, Patagonia, Leesa, etc. All these companies give as well as sell.
This is where we can see what people are talking about when they say it’s not all about the sale. We have to build relationships with our customers. We have to tell stories, create videos, design illustrations that make people feel like they are doing something beyond just consuming. This dichotomy of consumers wanting to give is a beautiful byproduct of our current belief economy. Everyone wants to make money. Everyone wants to buy. But those who want to buy also what to contribute to something more than capitalism. That forces companies to think outside the box and often make life better for people who are not involved in the market at all.
We Serve Our Customers Because that Serves the Sale
As we create brands that change the world for the better, we always have to have one foot planted firmly in the reality of commerce. All those companies that give as well as sell, have to first sell or else they won’t be giving a thing.
Belief systems will always change how we market. But they will never change why we market. So to reiterate, “We sell – or else.” This requires us to reintroduce ourselves to the transaction.
Advertising and marketing as professions have evolved since the days of Ogilvy, Bernbach, and Burnett. In the Mad Men era, every one was only a step away from the sales floor. Each person felt the heat when a client came back and sales were down. Art directors drew to sell, copywriters wrote to sell. Creatives had no delusions around the purpose of their art.
Today creative teams are further away from the transaction. That is why we are allowed to be more abstract. A lot of marketing roles today aren’t even aimed at sales. They are aimed at driving impressions, generating web traffic, harvesting clicks. These are the new social currencies that we work for. These currencies are also the ones most affected when tapping into people’s belief structures. However these currencies don’t always have measurable exchange rates to actual dollars.
Tactics can inflate vanity metrics while leaving sales unaffected. If you boost homepage visits by 4,000% yet no one buys, they’re still turning the lights off. With conversion rates dropping, social impressions not amounting to much in way of revenue, it would behoove digital marketers to start moving the needle on the bottom line if we hope to keep this a profession that stays a profession.
To do this, we need to broaden our perspective on the micro goals that make up each sale. That is to say that micro goals like impressions, clicks, visits can only be deemed successful, when traced back to an increase in sales. If they don’t, well then back to the drawing board.
Just as every generation past, brand experiences need to transcend the transaction. This is truer today than ever before. Our world is overly cluttered with marketing but also with a ton of other noise from politics, social grievances and global unrest. We need to connect with people as people and create and market our products in ways that make lives better. But for any of that to happen, we have to sell.