Human nature is a funny thing, and this is most evident in the so-called science of marketing, which has as many surprises as humanity itself. While it is supposed to track and predict what people will do, it is often wrong. What people really want, what they are willing to pay for, is always a bit of a mystery. Millions of dollars are invested by advertisers to ferret out this information in a world where the goalposts keep shifting.
When I was in art college, we had to read a tome called “Ogilvy on Advertising” which at the time was considered to be the Bible on advertising. It admonished you in very certain terms what and what not to do. One of the caveats was to never use humour in advertising. Of course, you have only to turn on your radio to understand how times have changed. What you are really witnessing, is a seismic shift in thinking that occurred somewhere between the 1970’s and now, where advertising has evolved from telling you qualitative facts about a product, to vague lifestyle associations that lack the direct messaging of the past.
Modern branding must differentiate you from the other billion human beings on this planet. The challenge is that it is becoming harder to engage consumers as a category. The only thing shared now is a capricious sense of loyalty. Consumers channel their moral choices into spending, but they want to be moral on their own terms. Brands that have successfully evolved must be socially conscious - but they must also cater to the individual in a way that has never happened before. Now you are going after buyers, one at a time.
In the age of social media, advertising is all about me, and successful brands will subtly lead you to believe that their virtues spring from your own personal assent. It is not as much about what you like, as what you are seen to like. It is an appeal to vanity. A product must make the consumer look good when he or she ‘likes’ it on Facebook. We like to look virtuous, that is, until something changes.
Which brings me to an unusual branding story. Anyone who grew up in the 1950’s or 1960’s went to school each day with a sandwich made out of pasty white bread better known as Wonder brand. Wonder Bread begat the phrase “the best thing since sliced bread”. Why was sliced bread special? In those days bread could not be pre-sliced unless you wanted it to arrive to market stale and dry. Short shelf-life was the problem.
Wonder bread however, somehow conjured together the right ingredients such that their bread could retain its sponginess for a long time, even when sliced. That meant bread could be driven in trucks and mass marketed far from the original bakery. It expanded the turf, and accordingly it became king of its category for an entire generation.
That is, until someone questioned whether Wonder bread might lack in nutrition. In the 1990’s, the bread market shifted its focus to deli style brands, stone ground, and whole grains. Bread could no longer be just filler for a sandwich - bread suddenly had to be nutritious. Accordingly, Wonder Brand dwindled off to a sidebar that died off without a whimper.
Consumers who had departed however, unexplainably rallied one day when it was announced that Wonder Bread was no longer going to be sold. Those nostalgic for the comfort food that defined their school lunches mobbed stores for one last taste. In a world that panders to the individual, you cannot discount that a lot of personal taste can be driven by whimsical associations that are not rational. People like their comfort food, nutrition be damned.
Accordingly, Wonder bread was born again through a company named Flower Foods which bought up and revitalized the brand. It is now sold as the same old Wonder bread you used to crave, with a few new nutritional twists that will appeal to today’s more conscious consumer.
Sometimes we like to be indulged, even when not making the most virtuous of choices. Branding which understands this will successfully part consumers with their wallets. We like to be virtuous, only until we decide not to be. Loyalties can be swayed by something as axiomatic as a 3 am rumbling in the tummy.
Sometimes simple cravings win the day. I have no explanation for this. If Adam were around, we could ask him, after all, he was successfully tempted. Until then, it is a given fact of human nature that vice sells.