I was watching a Cannes 2013 winners real last week when I was struck by just how meaningful many of the winning campaigns are. For me this confirmed that Marketing must have Meaning. The type of meaning that has a real impact on people’s lives. Meaning that goes way beyond the superficial and creates real value in peoples lives. Campaigns with utility.
When I think of marketing campaigns in South Africa, I can’t help but think that most lack meaning. They are either downright shallow, or they try and be superficially emotional or funny. In my view, most marketing campaigns in this country shout at the consumer. I say shout, because some of it is just so loud – you would hear the same bank advert on radio ALL DAY LONG!
Marketing in this country is too much shouting and too little listening, talking, listening. Too little conversation. For me this is a reflection of the types of interactions we have in the wider South African society. We don’t listen to each other’s differences. We simply do not have enough conversations across the racial and cultural spectrum. We don’t try hard enough to understand each other.
Take for example my good friend Julian Hewitt who decided to take his family and spend a month living with his domestic worker in a shack in Mamelodi. Talking to him, I was struck by the simple desire to gain a better understanding of their domestic worker and her world. How she lives. What her neighbourhood looks and feels like. I still remember listening to Julian telling me how he, his wife and two young daughters were going to stay in Mamelodi during the month of August. The marketing man that I am recommended that he get a PR agency involved to handle what I predicted was going to become a media storm once the story gets out. But he refused, saying that this is not about creating media attention.
But oh boy! The story did get into the media and soon they were being interviewed by everything from e-news to the New York Times. In hindsight maybe the Hewitt’s were slightly naïve to think their stay would remain a simple Facebook page and Twitter feed. Maybe they should have known the New York Times would call? Maybe they should have handled the media attention differently.
But here is the thing: the reaction that they got was in many ways extreme. Comments on popular blogs, social media and newspapers ranged from them being borderline racist to being irresponsible to some other “too muchness”. In many ways it became a shouting match – at them.
Too me this exemplifies how we talk to each other in this country. We are somehow struggling to sit down and have deep conversations. Maybe it is too soon? Maybe there is just too much hurt and pain in our country’s psyche to allow for such open conversations. We either talk in a superficial way too each other, cracking jokes around cultural differences, or we tear each other apart. And for me this is also evident in so many of our marketing campaigns. They prefer to be superficial because the risk of being anything more is evidently too great. Look at what was thrown at the Hewitt’s – now just imagine the impact that can have on a corporation!
But this fear to engage does not create deep, meaningful marketing campaigns. Many of the winning ads at Cannes go way beyond the superficial. They touch you. They make you want to say – Yes!! That is true for me! That speaks to me, deeply!
For a long time marketing has been asked to start measuring its impact. No longer can marketing just be about smoke in mirrors – the art – it had to be numbers driven. Apparently this drive for measurement is what lies behind the promise of digital media – where every “click” and “like” can be counted. But I want to propose that we often skip an “m”. Surely before you start to Measure, you need to first make sure you have Meaning?
Meaning is what underlie real conversations. And real conversations take guts. It takes guts to pack up your stuff – even if you want to call it some kind of “poverty tourism” – and move in with your domestic worker for a month. If you call that a holiday, it is certainly not a seaside breakaway. For me the Hewitt’s showed a real desire to at least try and understand how their domestic worker lives. To actually have a conversation instead of just saying hi and goodbye like so many of us do with our domestic helpers. The Hewitt’s had guts. Why do more companies in this country not have the same guts?
Why does it feel to me as if too many marketing campaigns in this country are just so superficial? They might be staying clear from controversy – mostly, but in the process they lack depth in meaning, leading me to switch-off the radio when that bank ad comes up. AGAIN.
I know local marketing campaigns have won at Cannes before. There are definitely local campaigns that do show real depth of understanding. But in a country with such obvious, glaring challenges I suggest companies should show more guts and start insisting on marketing with deep, real, meaning! Does it have to be a choice between marketing that is either superficial, or controversial? Or can there be another option: marketing that is based on real conversations, true relationships and deep meaning?